I spent two months this past summer interning on Capitol Hill for my Congressman, Rep. Gus Bilirakis. This immersion into the central artery of our nation’s government provided much more than the opportunity to field phone calls, sort mail and give Capitol tours. It yielded invaluable insight into the mystical world of the legislative branch, and corrected my partially misguided understanding of Congress, as shaped by textbooks and the media. This experience has led me to assume a unique position on an unlikely topic: term limits. I have come to believe that while instituting constitutional or legal restrictions on how long representatives and senators can serve could ostensibly benefit the nation, in practice, doing so would only transfer legislative authority from democratically chosen representatives of Congress to unelected Congressional aides that already hold significant power.
It seems almost perfidious to oppose term limits. After all, the current system is virtually impervious to political challengers each election cycle, and allows for indolence and petty political maneuvers, as members have little fear of losing their seats. Thus, many argue that representatives are not held accountable to voters, and maintain a sense of entitlement.
To be sure, there is merit to this line of reasoning, but consider the alternative. Suppose that limits are imposed – eight years for House members, and twelve for Senators. This would necessitate high turnover every two years, with inexperienced freshmen displacing seasoned members. Indeed, the energy and enthusiasm of these newly elected members could be beneficial, injecting novel ideas into a languished system, but they will likely face a steep learning curve as they will lack familiarity with the issues that they will be expected to be experts on. This will increase their dependence on their staff – a staff that presently wields tremendous influence.
A Shift in Power
Legislative aides are charged with researching and understanding the intricacies of the host of legislative issues within Congressional authority. As representatives rush from hearing to luncheon to voting in the chamber each day, they entrust their staff to brief them on upcoming legislation, and recommend a position. Most members simply don’t have the time to thoroughly research and evaluate every piece of legislation that reaches the floor, despite their best efforts to do so. This often leaves their staff members with the power to decide what the Congressman or Senator’s positions on bills will be. Of course, the representative makes the ultimate decision and votes how he or she desires, but nonetheless, immense power is held by young aides on Capitol Hill, who are typically just a few years out of college.
In the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans gained 63 seats from incumbent Democrats, the largest swing in over 60 years – a turnover of approximately 14 percent. But while the congressmen were new, the aides they hired were not; most were previously employed at some other office in Congress. Imagine if 25 percent of the House and 17 percent of the Senate were uprooted every two years. Power would shift from the representative to his staff, threatening our democratic system of government; this is the argument that Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) presented at an intern lecture event earlier this summer. Article One of the Constitution provided for the popular election of the House of Representatives, and the Seventeenth Amendment established direct election of Senators. Term limits, in transferring power to legislative aides, would almost certainly detract from the member’s ability to represent his constituents.
Increased Polarization and Animosity
It is dubious that this is the true reason that many members so passionately oppose term limits; they are likely influenced by less patriotic motives. Nonetheless, the harm of instituting term limits affects the nation as a whole, as doing so would increase partisanship and prevent compromise in Congress, primarily because it reduces the amount of time that members have to accomplish their agendas and achieve their ambitions. Under such a system, the leadership of each party would change every two years as members are forced out of office, and rising members would constantly vie for their party’s approval to enable their ascension to House Speaker or Majority Leader. They would be bound to maintain unwavering partisan allegiance throughout their terms, inhibiting compromise. In addition, members with specific agendas would have little incentive to exercise prudence, and would attempt to push through their initiatives, understanding they have limited time to do so.
Therefore, out of concern for our nation, I oppose implanting term limits in Congress. Such limits would reduce the power of our elected representatives and increase the partisan gridlock that we so abhor to unseen levels. Even more, such an experiment would test the principles upon which our nation was founded by allowing our system of government to slide away from democracy and into unchartered territory.