Yeah, that’s what I always say about term limits

An argument against term limits, not for them.

An argument against term limits, not for them.

On the day of the Democratic debate, ThinkProgress had an essay headlined, “The First Democratic Debate Is Tonight. Too Bad The 2 Most Qualified Candidates Are Banned.”

When I saw the Tweet promoting the item, I clicked just out of morbid curiosity to see who else in the world they thought should be on the stage that already included the marginal O’Malley, Webb and Chaffee. I imagined it being someone to the left of Bernie Sanders, this being ThinkProgress.

But… again,this being ThinkProgress… their “two most qualified candidates” turned out to be… Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

And I found myself granting them the point, to a certain extent.

Not that I want a third term of either man (if only for their own sakes — I saw how the job aged them, and those extra terms killed FDR), but I’m always glad to see someone willing to challenge term limits.

Now if you’re going to have term limits, I suppose the chief executive would be the office to be thus limited — for all the cliche reasons such as preventing the development of a de facto monarchy and so forth.

But as the piece notes, the timing of the 22nd Amendment was pretty weird, and a little hard to accept as being at all about good government. The Republicans who had just gained control of Congress rammed it through shortly after the passing of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had shut them out of four elections in a row.

At almost any other time in history, one could have made a somewhat credible argument for limits that didn’t involve crass partisanship. But not at that time. Roosevelt’s was one of the most successful presidencies in our history. His time in office was a sustained argument against limits, not an argument for.

But set aside Roosevelt and partisanship. In general, limits are of dubious value for these reasons stated in the piece:

Term limits, moreover, come at a high price. They lock the most experienced potential executives out of office. They periodically place untested leaders in power who may not have the seasoning necessary to handle difficult issues that arise early in their term. They increase corruption by shifting power towards lobbyists. And they strip voters of their ability to make their own decisions. If the American people actually are uncomfortable with a third Clinton or Obama term, they have an easy solution: they can vote for someone else.

Yeah, I know. The 22nd Amendment is here to stay. But some of those same arguments militate against acting to limit other offices. Which is why I’ve used some of them in the past…

10 thoughts on “Yeah, that’s what I always say about term limits

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    This piece was written BEFORE the debates, but I didn’t read it until AFTER.

    So I smiled at this argument against term limits: “They periodically place untested leaders in power who may not have the seasoning necessary to handle difficult issues that arise early in their term.”

    … because that was Lincoln Chaffee’s excuse for voting as he did on Glass-Steagall…

  2. Doug Ross

    The best case against term limits is the current non-term limited system. If this is the best we can do without term limits, why would ANYONE be opposed to doing something different? The assumption is that term limits would be worse. Whatever problems exist with the current system are a result of the actions of long tenured politicians – nobody else. 12 years is plenty for a Congressman. Then take a break for one term and try to come back. If the people want you, you can serve 24 out of 26 or 30 years. Or if you don’t want to leave Congress, you run for another office and theoretically replace someone who the people think is not as effective. That’s a problem?

    I say any system that allows people like Strom Thurmond, Charles Rangel, John Conyers, etc. to stay in office for decades is a lousy system. The power of incumbency is too strong.

  3. Bryan Caskey

    Someone’s probably already made this point, but if we could somehow resolve the issue of district gerrymandering, the issue of term limits in the House of Representatives would be moot. Entrenched members at the extremes wouldn’t survive very long.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Absolutely. Although a lot of the long-term incumbents aren’t extremists; they’re people who play it safe like Joe Wilson and Floyd Spence before him.

      Still, those people would have to face stronger opposition from the opposite party, if their districts were no longer drawn to protect them.

      1. Mark Stewart

        One would think the majority of the Republicans would team with at least some of the Democrats to push through restrictions on gerrymandering. Would kill several birds with one stone to return to something not so hyper attenuated. Gerrymandering will always exist, but I think we can (almost) all agree that it ought to be held in check at the margins.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          well, that would assume that most of the Republicans are interested in reform, and understand the problems well enough to recognize reform when they see it.

          I see no indication that that is the case.

          The sad irony is that this sort of reform would improve Congress to where a lot of the alienation that causes people to turn to the Tea Party and elect the really destructive “outsider” extremists would go away. But neither the voters who elect these folks nor the ones they elect seem to understand that. They think the problem is “liberals” and “RINOs,” so that’s what they fight against.

          1. Mark Stewart

            The problem is Reactionaries masquerading as Conservatives – something which they most assuredly are not. I don’t think you give the majority enough credit; but agree that they don’t seemed to have picked up on redistricting as the strategic move to tamp down the internecine bickering.

    2. Jeff Mobley

      Concerning term limits, I used to have the attitude: “Vote them out if you don’t like them.”

      After observing politics a little more closely in recent years, and having now run for office, I see things a little bit differently.

      There are so many advantages to incumbency. Some of them, like experience at the job, inside knowledge, deeper familiarity with the issues, etc., come naturally as a result of holding the position and are not at all unfair. Others are the result of political structures that are built (sometimes by design) in such a way that they protect incumbents (y’all have mentioned districting, for example). These aren’t necessarily “unfair” either, but I think most voters don’t fully appreciate just how hard it is for a challenger to oust an incumbent.

      My opponent spent approximately ten times as much money on her 2014 campaign as I did on mine. From time to time, I would take a look a the contributor list on the state disclosure website, and I was surprised how many of the corporate contributions she received were from entities that also contributed to the Republican in an adjacent district. Now, part of it was that I jumped in pretty late and nobody really had any idea who I was. But a big part of it was also that, when you’re an incumbent, donors come to you. Folks from the local and state party lent me volunteers and distributed my materials, and I’m really thankful for that, but most of the time, the focus of the party machinery is on protecting the party’s incumbents rather than on helping a challenger (although all of that depends on the district and the likelihood of victory, of course).

      And once someone gets elected, if they’re in a relatively safe district, after a term or two, he/she can amass a huge amount of money to scare off potential challengers.

      So I’m not sure what the right number is, but I now favor some kind of term limits. We don’t want a full slate of beginners every 2 or 4 years, but we can do better than allowing politicians to become cemented into their offices for decades.

      On the districting issue, I’ve been thinking of an algorithm that uses maps, census data, constitutional and statutory stipulations, and simple geometry to come up with what could serve as an objective starting point whenever it’s time to update. But I can’t figure out how to make it work in Microsoft Excel, so, I won’t be sharing it any time soon. 🙂

      1. Mark Stewart

        The software already exists; it is what the gerrymanderers use to create the “safe” districts. The programs don’t have to be pushed to such contorted lengths, however, for as you suggest, reprioritizing for simple geometry, etc. would provide this rationality. In fact, such a projection is probably what the gerrymanderers start with anyway.

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