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WHY CONGRESS NEEDS TERM LIMITS
Term limits are needed at all levels of government. However, because of the large electoral advantages wielded by incumbents, the historically low rate of turnover, the greater threat from special interests, and the unique power that federal legislators hold, it is especially important to apply term limits to Congress.
Term limits counterbalance incumbent advantages.
Congressional term limits are a necessary corrective to inequalities which inevitably hinder challengers and aid incumbents. Each House Member, for instance, receives nearly a million dollars per year to pay for franked (free) mail, staff salaries, and office and travel expenses. While campaigning, incumbents continue to receive salaries upwards of $130,000 a year, which typically dwarf the income of challengers (who often must resign from their jobs while running for office). A small army of congressional staffers does volunteer work during campaign season; they have every motivation to do so, since they are campaigning for perpetuation of their jobs. On official time, these political aides perform all sorts of jobs unrelated to legislation but closely tied to reelection, such as soliciting media attention and doing favors for constituents. The power of the frank permits each Member to send thinly disguised reelection propaganda to every residence in his district several times per term. The money allotted to each incumbent for franking alone -- over $160,000 per year -- is higher than the average challenger's total campaign expenditures. State legislators, who recognize the benefits to their state from long-term congressional incumbency, redraw election districts to maximize incumbents' electoral chances. The extent of incumbent resources prevents their exhaustive listing here, but their electoral impact is sizable; both the House and the Senate, for instance, have authorized taxpayer-funded lawyers to intervene in term limits litigation. When these benefits are added to such natural incumbent advantages as name recognition, media access, and higher political contributions, it is no wonder that challengers unseat incumbents so rarely. Despite increasing complaints about the drudgery of life in Congress, a remarkable number of incumbents continue to seek (and secure) reelection. Term limits ensure congressional turnover.
The turnover rate for House incumbents who attempt reelection typically is below 10 percent. This is in stark contrast to the first century of America's government, when long-term congressional incumbency was rare and Members often voluntarily chose to leave Washington and return home. (See e.g., George Will, Restoration (New York: Free Press, 1992), p. 84.) In the nineteenth century, the average turnover in each new Congress was over 45 percent, (Figures from Norman Ornstein, Thomas Mann, and Michael Malbin, Vital Statistics on Congress 1993-1994 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1993), and Will, Restoration.) and this ensured a continual influx of Members free from the institutional biases that long-term incumbency brings. Today, however, despite a large 1992 turnover fueled primarily by retirees, there is little or no turnover among those who set Congress's agenda: the committee chairmen and other members of the Democratic leadership. In the House of Representatives, for instance, the average job tenure is ten years. However, the principal leaders (the committee chairmen, speaker, majority leader, and whip) have served an average of twenty-seven years -- which means that the average member of this group has been in the House since the Johnson Administration. (See chart, "Unpopular Representation," Insight, April 11, 1994, page 22.) For every congressional election in the last twenty years, incumbents running for reelection in the House of Representatives have been returned to office at rates averaging higher than 90 percent. (Ornstein, Mann, and Malbin, Vital Statistics on Congress 1993-1994, p. 118, table 4-7.) Term limits would end such entrenchment and concentration of power, and the number of legislators who chose to retire or refused to run again also would increase. In California, for instance, the prospective imposition of term limits on the state legislature has more than doubled voluntary turnover (from 11 percent to 25 percent) in two years. (See John C. Armor, "'Foreshadowing' Effects of Term Limits: California's Example for Congress," U.S. Term Limits Foundation, Term Limits Outlook Series, Vol III, No. 1 (June 1994), p. 3.)
Term limits secure Congress's independent judgment.
In one of the few cases where Congress itself has established term limits, service on the House and Senate intelligence Committees is limited on the grounds that long-term membership might cause Members to develop a loyalty to the intelligence bureaucracy that would undermine their ability to exercise critical and independent judgment over it. This mandatory term limit is based on a sound theory of human conduct, but it deserves wider application; in an age where scores of federal agencies and special interests continually lobby for funding, there is a very real danger that Congressmen will become enmeshed in a culture that is overfamiliar with the federal government and insulated from the communities they ostensibly represent. Public sentiment in favor of term limits is likely influenced by the fear that Congressmen will become captured by this alien federal culture, as well as by frustration with the sclerotic representation that results from incumbents of all political stripes routinely getting reelected.
Term limits are a reality check.
Term limits also would provide inescapable, bracing reminders of what life in the real world is like. After former Senator George McGovern tried (and failed) to succeed in small business after spending eighteen years in Congress, he observed: "I wish I had known a little more about the problems of the private sector.... I have to pay taxes, meet a payroll -- I wish I had a better sense of what it took to do that when I was in Washington." (Fund, op. cit., p. 10.) Ensuring that Members eventually are exposed to life outside of Congress should inculcate a more sophisticated understanding of the logic and the limits of federal regulation.
Term limits minimize Members' incentives for reelection-related "pork- barrel" legislation.
As government has grown larger, legislative careerism has become more prominent in Congress. Because long-tenured Congressmen have increasing power over the fate of federal projects due to the seniority system, senior members of both parties now routinely campaign by stressing their ability to bring federal projects to their home districts rather than by explaining their views on the important issues of the day. When Members express their preferences in committee assignments, they are aware of the electoral impact of federal spending directed at their districts. After the 1992 elections, so many freshman Congressmen chose the Public Works and Transportation Committee that new seats had to be created, making Public Works the largest committee in Congress. (Jackie Calmes, "Tables Turned: Candidates of Change in 1992 Find Congress Reforms Them Instead," The Wall Street Journal, May 6, 1994, p. A1.) Term limits, by eliminating incentives for careerism, would curb reelection-oriented federal spending which is targeted to particular districts but contributes little to the general welfare of the country.
Term limits thus provide an escape from the Faustian bargain that voters face: they know that returning an incumbent for another term may help their district, but in the long run it has dire institutional and national consequences. Long-term officeholders, less vulnerable because of a well-honed reelection machine fueled by public resources, come gradually to identify their interests more and more with those of the federal government. There is a strong correlation between length of legislative service and votes in favor of more public expenditures. (See James L. Payne, The Culture of Spending (San Francisco: ICS Press, 1991), chapters 5, 11.) Political scientist John Armor, for example, has calculated the effects of term limits on congressional votes by eliminating the votes of senior legislators who would be locked out by term limits and replacing them by the proportion of votes for and against legislation made by junior members of their parties (in order to simulate the additional, hypothetical term- limited legislators); he found that the President's 1993 tax increase would not have made it through the House, while last year's Penny- Kasich federal spending cuts would have passed the House overwhelmingly. (See Pat Buchanan, "Term Limits Revolution," The Washington Times, July 7, 1994, p. A16.) Longer-serving Congressmen are also more hostile generally to other fiscally conservative measures, such as a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, (Payne, The Culture of Spending, pp. 178-179.) and a forthcoming study by Cato Institute analysts Steve Moore and Aaron Steelman finds that term limits would push numerous other congressional vote totals in a more fiscally conservative direction.
Term limits would restore respect for Congress.
Use of discreditable tactics like pork-barreling that have powerful electoral effects is a major cause of declining respect for and satisfaction with Congress. Term limits would arrest the decline of congressional legitimacy, ensuring that Members would be more truly representative of their communities, and would renew American citizenship by writing into law the principle that people can govern themselves -- and that this representation falls within the competence of any reasonably interested and well-educated citizen. The objection that long service is essential to understanding the complex legislative process says far more about the current congressional system than it does about the concept of term limits.
In short, the best way to reinvigorate government is to bring in legislators with fresh outlooks, new ideas, and better incentives. Term limits are the only realistic way to change the culture of legislative careerism in Congress -- a culture that undermines the public interest.