Yep. That Ted Cruz (R-TX). The one who turned his nose a permanent shade of brown to the Trump administration even after former president Donald Trump insulted Senator Cruz’s wife during the 2016 campaign. The same Ted Cruz who has been compared to Grayson Allen, Grandpa from The Munsters, and the Zodiac Killer. That one. That Ted Cruz did something pretty cool.
I’m serious. You know what it was? It was a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution that would impose term limits on US congressman and senators (read about it here). Term limits! As in a maximum number of years someone can serve as a representative or senator. Under his proposed amendment, representatives would be limited to three 2-year terms, and senators would be limited to two 6-year terms. A copy of the proposed amendment can be found at the bottom of the page.
This is fantastic news! And yeah, I’m not just overly thrilled at the source, but I’m a big believer in credit where credit is due, and credit in this instance is Senator Cruz’s. I can’t believe I’m saying it. Insane. But, let’s delve into the substance of this thing, shall we? First we will talk about the pros and cons of term limits, then we’ll talk about the process of amending the Constitution, and finally we’ll talk about the chance this has of actually becoming reality.
The Constitution does not mention term limits for anyone other than the president. And even that didn’t happen until after philanderer, racist, and all around greaseball Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected four times (1932, 1936, 1940, 1944). So, what can we take away from the silence on term limits? Well, we can either assume that the Framers (that is, the people who debated and wrote the Constitution) did not consider career politicians as a possibility, or that the Framers did consider career politicians a possibility, but not one that would endanger liberty. We could spend hours debating the Framers’ frame of mind (pardon the pun), but, like most discussions of such things, it would likely go no where.
So, let’s just discuss the pros and cons of term limits in very basic ways. But we’re going to do this backwards; cons first.
So, the cons: For starters, term limits deny voters the ability to keep electing a representative or senator that they truly believe in. In other words, if the people of a congressional district believe Paula Tishun (my catchall for fictional politicians) is serving the district well, why should she be limited to a finite number of terms? This con has nothing to do with treatment of the congressman/senator; it only deal with voters’ rights.
Other cons include reduced congressional efficiency because there’s too much turnover. This con doesn’t make a lot of sense to me because it assumes congress is efficient now.
Some commentators will mention how term limits hurt everyone by automatically removing “good” lawmakers and de-incentivizing policy expertise. The thought is that if someone knows they only have six years in the House or twelve in the Senate, they won’t focus on one area of policy to become THE authority on, and even if they do, they will be automatically canned when they’ve hit their threshold of service. Again, though, this presumes the existence of “good” lawmakers and that being an expert on one policy is a good thing. The debate-ability of good lawmakers is one thing, but only being an expert on one subject is a bad thing. Lawmakers are supposed to collect information and data from many sources to make the best decision on a given policy. They’re not supposed to just defer to whatever So-and-So said because he’s been on the Finance Committee for 35 years. That’s why they have congressional hearings on things. But I digress.
The pros should be a much longer list, but instead of listing every single pro, I’m only going to list a few but provide explanations of each. The first pro is that it would get rid of some careerism in congress. How would it do this? By limiting the amount of time one person can serve as a representative or senator, it de-incentivizes becoming a puppet of corporate goons. In other words, if you’re not always trying to win the next election and therefore taking campaign contributions in exchange for policy positions, you can actually take a stand on an issue. I’m not a fan of Bernie Sanders, but one thing I give him a lot of credit for is at least generally being true to his no-money-from-big-corporate-lobbyists sentiment. I’m sure he’s taken money from some huge industry at some point, but by and large I think he sticks to his guns.
Another pro is that a revolving door allows for constant fresh perspective. What’s very interesting is that congress typically has a very low approval rating but a very high rate of reelection. This Gallup poll shows approval rating trends (obviously the post-9/11 surge is an outlier). Notice how it’s at something like 15% right now? On the flip side, incumbent congressmen have had reelection rates as high as 98% in this recent past. Ninety-eight percent! For a group of idiots with a 15% approval rating. Ugh. Term limits would force people to put up or shut up. They can either serve their mundane six years and leave by operation of law. Or they can strive to make an impact in the limited time they have and when they are booted out by operation of law they can enter a different part of the government or go actually make a difference in the private sector. The knowledge of a limited amount of time will motivate people to try and make a real impact.
Yet another pro is that political parties other than the two sides of the same coin we have now would have a shot at placing some congressmen. In order to be elected to a federal-level position, you must have the support of Democrats or Republicans. This is bad for the nation because essentially every single representative, senator, and executive must pander to the lowest common denominator of their party. That’s why there were many Republicans who did not like Donald Trump but had to sing his praises because that’s how they’d win elections. Same thing with Joe Biden. You can’t convince me that Bernie Sanders and AOC actually believe Joe Biden is the answer. He’s just not Donald Trump and not a Republican.
And the parties know this. They know that the reelection rate is above 90% rate for incumbents, so the parties throw a bunch of money behind a candidate, then once they’re in office they don’t have to pay as much attention. The parties know the candidate will walk the line if they want support in the future, and the parties also know that it won’t cost as much to get them reelected because of the super high reelection rate. By limiting terms, you give politicians the freedom to actually do what they think is right rather than what an elephant or donkey tell them to do because they have less to lose. This, in turn, may drive politicians to parties other than the Democrats or Republicans. Libertarians, the Green Party, etc. could benefit from this, and having those minority parties is a good thing. I rarely give Europe credit for anything, but most European nations have more than three parties in their national assemblies, and all the better for it. It’s important to have diverse interests represented.
There are plenty more pros, but frankly it’s already past 8:00 and I have a lot of work to do today, so I’m going to rush this a bit.
Amending the Constitution
There are two ways the Constitution can be amended, both found in Article V of the document itself. The less likely way is a convention by the legislatures of 2/3 of the states to propose and debate an amendment. The more likely way is a proposal of 2/3 of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Either way, amendments coming from either source must be ratified by 3/4 of the states to become part of the Constitution. There are currently twenty-seven amendments, with the most recent one finally being ratified in 1992 after after lying dormant for over 200 years! Before that, the most recent amendment was ratified in 1971 and lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.
What are the Odds?
So what is the likelihood that Senator Cruz’s proposal becomes part of the Constitution? Not great. For one thing, amending the Constitution is a massive undertaking that requires a fair bit of bipartisan cooperation, which is in short supply these days. For another thing, you’d be asking sitting congressman and senators to limit their own authority, which is not something power-hungry, type-A, greasy, slimy, corrupt idiots like those currently occupying those seats are likely to do. And finally, the term limit issue is not as one-sided as one might think.
Well, actually, it is. A 2018 poll found that over 80% of Americans supported term limits for congressmen and senators. But that’s not really the issue. Sure, the overwhelming majority of people want some sort of term limits. But what kinds of term limits? That’s the rub. Some folks one the number of years to be equal, which would mean three terms in the House for every one term in the Senate. Some folks want limits but want them ridiculously high so that politicians can still serve 20+ years without hitting the limits. And still others want the terms ridiculously short. And some want a total number of years, not limited to either the House or Senate (i.e. you have 20 total years to serve, and how you choose to serve them is up to you and your constituency).
What we need is a larger roundtable-style discussion. We need more extensive research into what types of term limits voters want. I figure congress isn’t likely to do that because it’s contrary to their own interests, but maybe a joint effort by political think tanks would do the trick. A joint poll and convention run by the Hoover Institute, the Center for American Progress, the Mises Institute, and the Brookings Institute. That way you have, respectively, conservative, liberal, libertarian (a/k/a classical liberal), and moderate points of view all on it. After collecting all the data and coming up with some group proposal, then we could possibly actually make a difference. However, because that all hinges on reasonability and fairly nonpartisan collaboration, I don’t see it happening.
The moral of the story is that Ted Cruz did something cool that probably won’t amount to anything, but at least he’s trying, right? Read his full proposal (which was actually first proposed two years ago) below: