Among other things, President-elect Donald Trump ran on the promise that he would “drain the swamp” when he got to Washington. And now his once sworn-rival, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), is trying to assist in that effort by teaming up with Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Florida) on a proposed constitutional amendment that would enact congressional term limits.
Will Cruz and DeSantis succeed in their effort to cap senators at two six-year terms and representatives at three two-year terms? The odds do seem stacked against them. Nevermind that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) seems committed to ignoring this push, the primary issue is that it’s incredibly hard to modify the constitution — which requires 2/3 support in the House and Senate and ratification by 3/4 of the state legislatures in the country — in a caustic political climate. But never mind the could. The question two of our writers are examining is: should congress take this step.
Term Limits Would Help Elections Do What They’re Supposed To Do
When the late Bill Frenzel, a Minnesota Republican who served in the U.S. House for 20 years, addressed the Brookings Institution in 1997, the subject of his talk was a rather personal — if not ironic — one. He was interested in congressional term limits, which he’d unsuccessfully tried to introduce a bill for in 1971, as well as during successive congresses. Frenzel was never able to find a co-sponsor — let alone congressional or voter support — during his tenure, but offered one of the issue’s only defendable arguments.
“The clincher has always been that without term limits, the Congress is immortal,” he explained. “Even in recent years, after bank scandals, the Keating Five, and whatever else is happening now to bruise the people’s confidence in its Congress, incumbents have been, and are being, reelected with relentless regularity. Because many of us have been beneficiaries of that system, we all know the success ratios.”
In other words, term limits — be they shorter ones demanded by “purists” or Frenzel’s unwanted “eighteen year model” — are necessary to prevent elected officials from serving too long in office. Especially if said officials’ records were rife with scandal, but nonetheless unacknowledged by American voters due to interference, little to no reporting (or public knowledge) of the matter, or other factors.
Term limits would reduce many of these problems all at once — hence why the subject became politically viable during the “Republican Revolution” of the ‘90s. Led by then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, Republicans took control of the House in an effort to balance the budget, reform President Bill Clinton’s welfare program, and cut taxes. Much of their rhetoric was, on the surface, decidedly anti-establishment and pro-voter.
“The issue picked up some smarter proponents; state referenda were passed; the idea began to attract the support of a strong majority of Americans,” said Frenzel in his 1997 speech. “Support, and certainly intensity, may be on the wane now, but the issue is still lively. Term limits still poll well, and old friends, like myself, remain steadfast in their support of the concept.”
Term limits fell to the wayside once Gingrich and his colleagues achieved enough power to remain in office for a time. Yet the subject has come up again and again during recent elections, specifically this time around thanks to President-elect Trump’s advocacy. Though that may not be enough to sustain the interest and push forward real progress. When Sen. McConnell argued against President-elect Donald Trump’s public support for term limits, he said, “We have term limits now. They’re called elections.” He also refused to say the topic would ever enter the Senate’s agenda in the 115th Congress, and despite Sen. Cruz and Rep. DeSantis’ efforts, it likely never will.
Even so, the act of casting a ballot isn’t necessarily enough to curb an individual or party’s negative influence on local or national politics thanks to all-too-common gerrymandering practices. As recent as North Carolina’s hotly contested gubernatorial election, state Republicans have tried (and mostly failed) to redistrict certain regions for their benefit. However, if congressional term limits of some sort were in place, perhaps legally spurious maneuvers like these would happen less — thereby increasing the power voters wield at the ballot box. – Andrew Husband