Senate Panel Debates Term Limits for Congress Members

The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is visible March 30, 2019, as cherry blossom trees bloom in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, FIle)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Former Republican lawmaker Jim DeMint has seen it before – newly elected, passionate lawmakers sweep into Washington intent on bringing with them fresh ideas and change, only to be derailed by powerful committee chairs who have held their positions for years, maybe decades.

To DeMint, who represented South Carolina in the House and the Senate from 1999 to 2013, the fix for this problem is simple: Impose term limits on members of Congress.

At a Tuesday afternoon hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, DeMint said term limits would end the seniority system that rules Washington politics, freeing up new ideas and making lawmakers more attuned to the demands of their constituents.

“By closing off avenues to be something important, term limits might reintroduce senators and representatives to the appeal of doing something important for their constituents, for their country and for themselves,” DeMint said.

But political scientists who testified at the hearing warned term limits might not accomplish what DeMint and the current Republican senators championing the policy hope.

“Term limits may be great politics, but they are incredibly bad for government,” said Casey Burgat, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute’s Governance Project. “In fact, they are more likely to hamper Congress’ ability to do its job and would exacerbate some of the very problems their adoption is intended to rectify.”

Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who has offered a constitutional amendment to put in place term limits on House members and senators, argued Tuesday that term limits would bring Congress back to how the framers of the Constitution intended it to function, with lawmakers spending only a brief time in government before returning to their lives as private citizens.

“The fears of the framers have today been realized,” Cruz said Tuesday. “Today the swamp is hard at work picking winners and losers, with hardworking Americans typically winding up on the losing end.”

Cruz’s measure would limit senators to two terms and House members to three.

DeMint, like Cruz, argued term limits would make fundraising less important in the lives of lawmakers, while also emboldening them to take tough votes without having to constantly worry about how each will play in their re-election campaigns.

But Lynda Powell, a political science professor at the University of Rochester, said Tuesday that research she has conducted on a group of states that passed term limits in the 1990s suggests the policy might have counterintuitive effects.

For example, Powell said lawmakers who face term limits are more likely to have previously held political office and to have ambitions to higher office after their time runs out in their current job. According to her research, term limits also have made it so members do not keep as well in touch with their constituents, while also making governors and bureaucrats more powerful.

Burgat backed up Powell’s findings, also saying lawmakers who face term limits tend to rely more on “unelected outsiders” for information because they do not have the time to develop the expertise necessary to craft intricate legislation.

“Just as in any other profession from teaching to accounting to surgery, we get better at the job the longer we do the job,” Burgat said.

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