A New Yorker Commentary
When term limits fizzled
in the House of Representatives this year, thereby becoming one of only two duds in
Speaker Newt Gingrich's hundred-day fireworks display (the other was the balanced budget
amendment), right-thinking people were much gratified.
"A Victory For Good Sense" is how the New York Times headlined its editorial, the text of which, savoring the thought, pronounced the rejection "a triumph for wisdom." A few days earlier, the editorialists of the Washington Post, under the headline "The Term Limits Scam" had written, "Term limits are a terrible idea, and there will be no mourning in this space if they fail." They did, and there was none.
Those who fret that our elected representatives have become slaves to opinion polls now have a counter-example to take comfort in. Surveys consistently show that the idea of limiting the terms of members of the national legislature is favored by anywhere from two-thirds to four-fifths of the American people -- poll numbers that would normally be large enough to concentrate the minds of those same legislators.
In this instance, though, in fine Burkean fashion, they consulted their consciences instead. Four different versions of a term-limit constitutional amendment -- the most popular would have limited senators and representatives to twelve consecutive years of office-holding -- went down to defeat, one after another. This was not wildly surprising. (Would a college faculty pass a resolution denouncing tenure?) But the idea of term limits will not go away; it's much too popular for that. Nor, come to think of it, is it such a terrible idea. It's actually quite a good one.
Not, however, for the reasons usually advanced by its most active proponents, nearly all of whom are anti-government zealots of one stripe or another -- Gingrichian Republicans, talk-radio populists, at-loose-ends Perotistas. In their view, the country is afflicted with a class of parasites -- "career politicians," who devote their lives to perpetuating themselves in office by spending the people's money. A congressman's length of service correlates with a tendency, in the words of Charles T. Canady, Republican of Florida, who made the opening speech in the House floor debate, "to think that the power of the federal government can be used to solve every problem." Term limits, writes George F. Will, would "transform Washington's culture of spending."
Actually, there's no obvious reason term limits should make Congress more receptive to conservative bromides, such as reflexive opposition to government programs, than to liberal ones, such as a reflexive belief in them. The fact that term limits are a mostly conservative and Republican enthusiasm is an artifact of the Democrats' forty-year stranglehold on the House, broken last November.
Today's Elections Aren't Term Limits
Opponents of term limits claim that they are undemocratic, because, to quote Senator Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, they would "restrict the freedom of voters to elect whomever they please." Not by much, though. The maximum number of potential candidates a term limit could disqualify for a given seat is one, and that rarely; as it is, age and residency requirements disqualify millions. And in more important ways term limits are anything but undemocratic.
"We already have term limits," goes the supposedly most withering argument against the idea, flourished over and over during the House debate. "They're called elections." What we generally don't have, however, are competitive elections. The Republican Party did well in the last election, but not nearly so well as the Incumbent Party: a near-Brezhnevian 91% of the incumbent House candidates were reelected. Sixty-four per cent of the "races" were decided by margins of twenty points or higher, which is to say that their outcomes were never in doubt. Is it any wonder that in the most one-sided districts two-thirds or more of the potential electorate decided not to bother voting?
The best remedy for the chronic non-participation that our political system induces would be to junk the single-member-district, winner-take-all scheme we inherited from the British and replace it with some form of proportional representation, such as exists in the great majority of the world's democracies. Pending that unlikely development, term limits, especially if they were to be combined with reforms in campaign financing, would help.
At a minimum, they would give every voter a fighting chance of participating now and then in a genuinely political election -- that is, in an election that would turn not on the goodies that old Congressman Jones has procured for the district but on the competing political visions and programs of parties and candidates. Under current arrangements, you have to be either heartless or thoughtless to vote against a long-sitting representative -- one who brings jobs and money to your district -- just because you happen to disagree with him or her about national issues.
After all, if you do manage to bring him or her down, you will change the ideological complexion of the House by a mere two-tenths of one per cent -- a benefit both notional and negligible compared with the palpable cost of beggaring your neighbors. The problem is not individual incumbents but chronic incumbency; and trying to solve it by removing your own incumbent is like trying to cure arthritis in your fingers by trimming your fingernails.
Taking on Seniority
A twelve-year limit would finish off the much-reformed but still pervasive and undemocratic regime of seniority within Congress. The potentates of Capitol Hill, such as the chairs of important committees, are elevated by a decades-long, quasi-feudal process of favor-trading, personal-alliance-building, ladder-climbing and seat-warming. Term limits would leave Congress little choice but to pick its chiefs democratically, on the basis of the policies and the leadership qualities of the candidates. And a regular infusion of new leadership in both houses of Congress -- one who served more than six years would be a rarity -- would be a spur to brisk accomplishment, as Speaker Gingrich has just spent a hundred days demonstrating.
The seniority system occasionally produces good leaders as well as bad ones, but there is no denying that it is grossly biased in favor of the most politically torpid parts of the nation. A swing district -- one marked by close elections and the robust participation that close elections bring -- has a hard time keeping somebody in office long enough to take advantage of the glacial process by which congressional power is accumulated. With relentless efficiency, the seniority system empowers the country's most politically sluggish precincts at the expense of its politically more lively ones. That is perverse.
The term-limit idea at least has the virtue of recognizing, however dimly, that there are systemic explanations as well as moral ones for our collective woes. It's hardly the dangerous folly it has been made out to be. But a few more elections like the last one may be required before the liberal Democrats who are the idea's most determined opponents can be persuaded that it deserves another look.
Hendrik Hertzberg is executive editor of The New Yorker magazine and serves on the Board of Directors of The Center for Voting and Democracy. Reprinted by permission; © 1995, The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.
Term Limits Ruled
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