Term Limits on the Hill

January 02, 1991

White House Chief of Staff John Sununu said the other day that President Bush will propose a constitutional amendment limiting the terms of members of Congress. This is smart politics for election-year 1992, but not so smart for working with Congress. The general public loves the idea of limiting terms; members of Congress, including senior Republicans, hate it.

This is not good political science. Especially not limits of 12 years (six terms in the House, two in the Senate), which is what the president favors. Experience is as important on Capitol Hill as it is elsewhere, in the public and private sectors. Seniority is an asset, not a liability.

Of course, it is not seniority or even longevity per se that concerns the public. It is the apparent invulnerability of incumbents in Congress to public opinion. The House of Representatives was set up with two-year terms in order that the public could frequently change its composition enough to get policies and laws changed, as public moods and priorities changed. This worked well for a century. About half of the House turned over in the average election of the 1880s.

The federal government was much different then, a minor element in the average citizen's life. But even after the advent of the New Deal and World War II, about a fourth of all incumbents were replaced in the House every two years for a while. Since 1980 only about a tenth of the House is new each time. That's not enough, and it suggests why Congress, which assembles tomorrow, so often is late in responding to changing moods and realities.

But term limits are not the answer. Legislators aren't going to approve a constitutional amendment that they see as a suicide machine. Most states won't enact term-limit laws on their congressional delegations (though we believe the Constitution is clear that they can) because to do so would be to give competing states the advantages of seniority on important committees; and as has been seen in the balanced budget amendment movement, calling a constitutional convention is virtually impossible.

So what to do? Change the campaign finance laws to aid challengers. This can be done in the form of subsidies comparable to the staffing and franking benefits incumbents now get, relaxation of contribution limits to challengers, subsidies to state political party organizations, that sort of thing. Many incumbents may view this as a form of suicide. But if they don't find some way to assure the public that there is still choice and responsiveness in congressional elections, a constitutional convention or some other truly revolutionary reaction may occur. The 102nd Congress should take action.

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