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Time for Term Limits for Congress

Why is it that Americans are so thoroughly disillusioned with Congress that they demand term limits?

According to a poll conducted earlier this year, 82% want term limits while only 9% are opposed.  Fifty-six per cent strongly supported limits, with only 3% strongly opposed.

More than 200 years ago, Benjamin Franklin foresaw what would happen to Congress if it became a position of both wealth and power.  “. . . . And of what kind are the men who will strive for this profitable pre-eminence, through all the bustle of cabal, the heat of contention, the infinite mutual abuse of parties, tearing to pieces the best of character?  It will not be . . . the men fittest for the trust.  It will be the bold and the violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits.” 

That is why it is time for term limits on Congress.

Formal term limits for Congress seemed unnecessary when the Constitution was written.  Self-limitation  was a natural and customary habit for that age.  Being a legislator was usually a burden, providing little income while requiring time away from one’s job and family. 

Given these factors, few saw Congress as a career. The Congressional Research Service concluded that “most lawmakers in the 18th and early 19th centuries can be characterized as ‘citizen legislators,’ holding full-time non-political employment and serving in Congress on a part-time basis for a short number of years.”  Through the 1860’s it was normal for at least 30% of House members to retire at the end of each Congress, and the figure sometimes topped 50%. 

Circumstances began to change in mid-century.  Railroads and steamboats made travel faster and more comfortable.  Pay was increased and members were allowed to hire staff at taxpayer expense.

Beginning in the 1870’s there was a gradual increase in the number of House members seeking reelection.  Whereas before 1887 at least 25% (and often far more) of the House had always retired at the end of the term, after 1900 the number of retirements was always below 20%.  The average length of service of Senators doubled during the latter part of the 19th century, and by the end of the 20th had nearly tripled.

Washington political reporters pointed out in 1931 that “few House members, if defeated after any length of service, ever  return to the small towns from which most of them come.  They go to any lengths to remain in the capital.”  If unable to get a government job, they “become lobbyists, open law offices, or go into business in the capital.  ”

The cost of government began to grow as Congressmen made it a career.  (It will come as no surprise that the Progressive leaders in Congress, men determined to increase the size and power of government, showed an inclination to stay in office as long as possible.)  Following 1865, annual government expenses had been held to $350 million or less.  This rose toward the end of the century and had more than doubled to $734 million before World War I.  The number of civilian employees of the Federal government soared from 100,000 in 1881 to 239,000 in 1901 and 399,000 in 1916.

The longer Congressmen stay, the more they adopt the Washington point of view – that Big Government is good, that government should provide special advantages for special interests, and that the greatest sins are to reduce government spending and to provide equal treatment for all.

Term limits would put an end to the professional congressman who serves for decades. It would break up the networks of long-serving Congressmen and lobbyists.

These statements are not unsupported theory.  Fifteen states placed term limits on their legislatures in the 1990’s, and those states have served as experimental laboratories to determine the effects.  Scholars have monitored the results, which show that term limits will be a necessary part of any plan to return to a citizen legislature.

In term limited states
• Legislators were less likely to obey party leaders who urged them to surrender principle and accept compromise
• Taxes tend to be lower
• Although the studies did not agree on a consistent trend on spending, there were indications that pork-barrel spending was less likely
• Lobbyists found it difficult to deal with the constant turnover which made it impossible for them to develop long-term relationships with legislators.  This was especially a problem for former legislators who retired to become lobbyists, since their former colleagues soon left office.

Term limits alone will not turn a professional legislature into a citizen legislature.  Big salaries, generous health and retirement benefits, year-long sessions, and large staffs are among the other issues that must be addressed.  However, without term limits it is unlikely we will ever return to the citizen legislature that was a foundation of the government established by the Founders.

The Conservative Caucus, a project of Americans for Constitutional Liberty, is a public policy organization, contributions to which are not tax deductible. The IRS has determined ACL to be a 501(c)(4) organization, exempt from Federal income tax. ACL can receive corporate donations.

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