The issue of term limits for Congress members is significant because they are the key lawmakers in the country. Voters have varied views on whether the number of terms an individual can serve in the Congress should be limited. The movement to limit the terms for members of Congress has been gaining strength in the United States for some time. Voters want to limit the terms for Congress members in fifteen states where referenda had been held in 1994. The support for term limits has been overwhelming, because, on average, two thirds of the voters in fifteen states were in support of the limits. Proposals for term limits for other local and state officials have been adopted in many counties and cities. This highlights some issues in relation to the public’s trust in politicians and other public officials. This paper presents the debate on whether term limits for Congress members should be imposed in all states. It will also assess current literature on the topic to determine the advantages and disadvantages of such limits on the law making institutions of the country. Term limits are favored for their appeal in aiding the turnover of legislation and bringing a new perspective into Congress. It also has the effect of reducing federal spending on elections, which are extremely wasteful and prevalent in the careerist congressional culture. Term limits imposed at the state level are constitutional and express the powers of states in regulating their elections. Key opposition for term limits comes from the elected officials as well as other interested groups and parties that depend on the elected government officials.
Calls for Introduction of Congressional Term Limits
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People have to embrace change in order to find better ways of achieving their goals and responding to current needs. As a result, there is an increasing conviction that the continual infusion of fresh leaders in political positions is an essential thing for the Congress and the country at large. Support for term limits is high across the board and extends to significant majorities in diverse demographic groups. Presidential term limits were imposed at two terms, which created an imbalance in federal government, Congress and the executive branch of the government. Over time, many presidents, including Harry Truman and Eisenhower, have supported the idea of term limits for Congress. Grid locks in decision making between the executive branch of the government and Congress sometimes derail policies and reduce the effectiveness of government in responding to people’s needs. Special interest groups may oppose term limits because they do not believe that they would be beneficial to them. The investment in terms of campaign contributions would be lost for the special interest groups, such as corporations with the introduction of term limits (Feld & Kirchgassner, 2001). Term limits may be opposed because they require lobbyists to relearn the priorities of new members of Congress in order to argue based on merits, as opposed to personal connections. Having term limits would mean legislators change frequently, thus personal connections are short lied and low in relevance for both the legislators and lobbyists. Based on the same argument that was used in imposing term limits for the president, all levels of government require term limits. Incumbent legislators have high electoral advantages, which coupled with the low rates of turnover highlight the need for Congress term limits.
According to Lopez (2003), the debate on introduction of term limits was developed around the interest group theory of government. This is based on the argument that the government’s role is to redistribute wealth among the private citizens. The cost of collective action increases with the size of the decision making group and the heterogeneity in their views. The legislature brokers transfer wealth from politically inefficient groups to groups that are politically effective. Legislators, through their work, maximize political support, as opposed to social welfare. The quantity of wealth transfer that a legislator should provide in order to maximize political support is the efficient quantity that he or she will apply. Political competition among interest groups in politics leads a legislator to match the demand and supply with wealth transfers (Lopez, 2003). The market of wealth transfers or political action is not efficient; this results in premiums, which accrue to the district offices and a legislator for seniority in the market.
The possibility for reelection is based on the productivity of a legislator in making adjustments to political efficiency. Productivity of a legislator is dependent on parliamentary power through committee seats, agenda power, leadership positions, and seniority. This means that the legislator has an incentive to increase tenure in relation to other legislators. An increase of incentives for support groups, which benefit from his actions in the distribution of wealth, makes these groups oppose term limits. This highlights the issue of term limitation because social welfare would be improved by removal or mitigation of shifting incentives. It would act as a strategy for reducing the economic costs associated with wealth transfer (Besley & Case, 1995). Incumbents have collective control over institutions that determine the competition they receive from challengers to their congressional seats. Term limits may enhance efficiency in the election market by eliminating the barriers erected by incumbents that make the market uncompetitive.
The Free Rider Problem
A significant paradox has been observed in the voting habits of individuals who vote for their incumbent congressmen, while strongly favoring term limitation initiatives. According to Dick and Lott (1993), the reason is that the voting of legislators is affected by the free rider problem. Term limits respond to this by providing a solution to the free rider problem. This theory is a further application of the interest group theory of government. Legislators compete with each other for transfers; the length of tenure provides benefits to an elective district in absolute and relative terms. Tenure also results in accumulation of brand name capital for the legislator. This insulates the legislator from voter preferences and provides insulation for inefficient representation. In this way, tenure increases free rider problem for the community in two distinct ways. High turnover level in Congress may be expensive to the electorate by removing experienced politicians and substituting them with inexperienced ones. It also increases incentive problems, associated with last term effect, thus it may be costly for the electorate. High turnover levels may weaken the electoral sorting mechanism by enhancing information deficiencies. A politician who is electorally comfortable is likely to direct transfers to influential coalitions and to himself, thus reducing transfers to the electorate. This also increases the welfare costs of distribution, thus influencing the community negatively.
Congressional Tenure in the 20th Century
Framers of the constitution failed to include term limits for Congress members, because they expected turnover to be high. They did not anticipate the increase in professionalism in the twentieth century. The increase in professionalism was responsible for the increasing tenure of legislators and the increased interest in term limits. The length of tenure for Congress members remained low until the early 1950s, when professional and insulated Congress was developed with the advent of the new deal era. The change was attributed to increasing marginal value of congressional tenure after WWII. The campaign finance reforms of 1974 reduced the vulnerability of incumbent legislators in their first few terms. An increase resulted from internal and external factors, such as the increasing attractiveness of Congress to career minded individuals because of its increasing role (Birkhead, Uriarte, & Bianco, 2010). They began creating insulations for their incumbency through institutions and policies that were meant to dissuade challengers from getting their positions. This means the tenures are a result of increasing barriers to entry and ambition by the legislators. This is the main reason for members of the public calls for the imposition of term limits for Congress.
Tenure Turnover Tradeoff
Term limits are institutional mechanisms that have a significant influence on the tradeoff between tenure and turnover. Voters benefit from low turnover among legislators because of their level of experience and familiarity with the voters in times of crisis, as well as relationships with influential individuals. Increase in tenure enables a legislator to gain efficiency in representing the interests of the state in Congress. The electorate may discover difficulties in removing their highly tenured legislators because of high barriers to entry for challengers. The advantage offered by the legislator may be too broad, thus protecting the incumbent even in the presence of scandals, shirking, or poor job performance. Optimal tenure of a legislator is at the point where the marginal cost of tenure equals the marginal cost of turnover (Lopez & Jewell, 2007). Term limitation in this case is used as a mechanism for enhancing optimal tenure in polities that experience tenure costs. The tenure and turnover in one state depend on tenure and turnover in other states. States with high representative capital have advantages over states with low representative capital.
Risk-averse voters in states with heterogeneous populations may benefit from term limits because the frequency of open seat elections would increase. Risk averse voters prefer being in power 50% of time to half the chance of being never in power. In states that are polarized, a set of interests is likely to experience a higher level of disutility compared to a set of interests in power. This shows the higher likelihood of groups in diverse populations agreeing to limit their own terms as a way of ensuring that other groups are also limited (Lopez & Jewell, 2007). Term limits may also complement rational ignorance. This is because informational costs about challengers and incumbents are relatively equal across the states, but the ability to process or gather information varies with education. As a result, a highly educated electorate would be less likely in need of an election substitute and thus less likely to favor term limits.
Advantages of Term Limits
Correction of inequality is a key advantage that would accrue from congressional term limits. Incumbents in congressional posts have significant elective power that hinders challengers from getting such positions. Each member of the house receives significant resources every year for staff, mail, office, and travel expenses. During campaigns, they also receive their usual salaries, which are mostly higher than those of the challengers. Challengers also have to quit their jobs in many cases, while running for elective posts, thus reducing their financial ability to campaign and rally voters. Their electoral impact is also increased by their ability to redraw boundaries for elective districts in order to maximize their power. These factors give the incumbent house members’ power that may present a significant level of inequality, while competing with challengers for the position. Other issues, such as media access, political contributions and political access also increase their ability to compete for the positions and make it difficult for their challenges to take the seats from them. In response to these inequalities, the introduction of term limits would produce a balancing effect to the power that the incumbents wield in congressional positions (Clain & Mao, 2003).
Congress members who attempt reelection have exceptionally low chances of failure and increasingly lower possibility of quitting politics to do other things. The rate of reelection for Congress members, who attempt reelection, is at least 90% and has been that way since the 1990s. Term limits would increase the rate of turnover in Congress by ending the concentration of power in some individuals. This would also increase the number of legislators, who quit politics voluntarily or refuse to run again. The level of voluntary turnover would increase as a result of the introduction of term limits, thus increasing the number of the new Congress members.
Independence of Judgment
Congress is meant to represent the interests of the public in law and policy formulation. The lack of term limits in their service presents a situation, where the members might develop over familiarity and a culture that is enmeshed with the federal government. As a result, they do not respond to community needs of their electorate. Introduction of term limits would ensure that service in the house is limited. This is because long-term membership might result in development of loyalties by the members to the intelligence bureaucracy. This would limit their ability to make effective decisions and independent judgments over the senate intelligence committees. This has the likely effect of frustrating the electorate because of the high rate of reelection of incumbents, who are not effective in producing adequate representation. The judgment of Congress on issues affecting the public would also be increased by the introduction of term limits. This is because the congressmen would have effective understanding of the issues that have to be addressed (Johnson & Crain, 2004). This is because it ensures that members are exposed to real life situations and the real world by reducing their terms in political positions. This would foster a sophisticated understanding of the limits of federal regulation as well as the logic of its application. Term limits for Congress would enhance their focus on the current issues affecting their electorate because that would be their main selling point. It would increase politics that revolves around parties and policies as opposed to personalities. This would also enhance accountability, because the electorate has freedom in assessing and determining whether the legislator is addressing their needs.
Curbing Reelection Focused Legislation
Legislative careerism is a pertinent problem in Congress today because of the size of the government. The focus of Congress on pertinent issues of the day has declined with congressmen increasingly focusing on their ability to bring federal funding for projects in their districts. Long-tenured congressmen have a high level of power on federal projects because of the seniority system. On this level, senior members in both parties have a tendency to campaign on the basis of their ability to influence federal projects. In 1992, many first-time congressmen chose the transportation and public works committee and that resulted in the creation of new seats, making it the largest committee in Congress. It was observed that the new congressmen, who were the candidates of change, were reformed by Congress instead of reforming it (Lopez, 2003). This was because of the focus on careerism and the opportunities that the public works and transport committee offered. It would enable them to engage in development of projects that were clearly visible to the electorate, which would increase their ability to direct such funding to their districts in order to ensure reelection.
Term limits have the potential to reduce careerism in politics and curb federal spending that is oriented towards reelection. This is because such strategies are focused on producing spending that is visible to the elective districts, but does not contribute to the general welfare of residents. The absence of term limits for congressmen puts the electorate in a dilemma because they consider the advantages of reelecting a congressman for the district. The electorate also has to consider the negative effects of such reelection to the national and institutional integrity of public offices (Johnson & Crain, 2004). Office holders that have been serving for a long time are less vulnerable and have access to public funding for their reelection. Such congressmen identify their interests with those of the federal government more than congressmen, who have served for short periods. Research has shown a strong correlation between the length of legislative service and votes in favor of increased public spending. Long serving congressmen are more hostile to fiscally conservative measures such as amendments in relation to balanced budget legislations. The concentration of power among long serving legislators would be significantly reduced with the introduction of term limits for Congress.
Disadvantages of Term Limits
Small states are likely to be harmed by term limits because they have fewer representatives in Congress than the large states. This is because small states continually reelect their representatives in order to accumulate power through seniority. Introduction of term limits would result in loss of seniority, leaving small states at the mercy of a large state, which has many representatives in Congress. Membership in key committees would go to large states, thus leaving the small states out in decision making process and distribution of federal projects. This means the representation of small states in key committees would be limited, thus reducing the level equality in representation across the country. This might present a problem for small states that rely on the seniority of their legislators to get equality when participating in the federal projects.
Another issue with the introduction of term limits is the need for all legislators to leave office after the expiry of their time. Irrespective of their job performance or other aspects of their work, legislators would have to leave office. This means voters do not have the freedom to reelect their legislators for the good work. A significant number of districts would lose highly effective and well performing legislators. Experience in legislation would not be a key factor for legislators because they have to leave office with the expiry of their allowed terms. Serving in the house enables members to gain experience, which is lost with increased turnover levels. Loss of experience gained by legislators and inability of voters to keep high performing legislators may increase the cost of legislation because of the need for new legislators to learn. This may also present the problem of lack of seriousness in the legislature. This is known as the super-class phenomenon, which results from changes in rates of turnover based on the term limits. Turnover rates spike at intervals equivalent to the length of time allowed. Spikes in turnover are associated with large numbers of freshmen in Congress. The legislature could fail to function due to the high level of inexperience or would be incapable of responding to emergencies (Lopez, 2003).
Term limits may also result in increased cost of governance because of the behavior of legislators in their final term. This has been termed as the last term effect, which would enhance the leader’s focus towards the achievement of personal goals or goals of other interested parties. This is because the legislators would not have any incentives to act in the interest of the public. This view assumes that the legislator acts in the interest of the public as a way of earning their trust in order to increase the chances of reelection (Ginsburg, Melton, & Elkins, 2011). This view presents the idea that the electorate may benefit from the lack of term limits for Congress, and instead have strategies to incentivize voluntary retirement. Leaders require the incentive of reelection in order to avoid final term problems.
In conclusion, many arguments have been developed in support of term limits for Congress, while others have opposed these proposals. The propositions were a result of increasing dissatisfaction with the conduct of Congress and the rise of careerism in politics. Individuals supporting the proposal felt that it would cause the legislators to focus on issues that were affecting their constituents as opposed to the level of federal spending that they could bring to their elective districts. The country may stand to gain from such term limits because they enhance turnover and thus the introduction of fresh leadership in Congress. They enhance the focus of representatives on current issues, as opposed to their power and brand capital. Such limits on terms for Congress members may reduce the level of experience and result in the ejection of highly effective legislators. The issues also address the dilemma among voters when they reelect an incumbent legislator because of the benefit to the area yet the overall welfare of the country does not improve. These issues show the diverse issues that have to be considered before implementing such congressional terms limits. According to the current studies and trends, the country would benefit from the introduction of congressional term limits because of institutional changes that would reduce some of the disadvantages highlighted. There should be a limit on the number of terms for a member of Congress because there are significant advantages that would accrue to the country.
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