TERM limits on lawmakers are becoming a hot topic. Displaying the anti-incumbent sentiments rife in today's politics, voters in California, Colorado, and Oklahoma last month capped the terms of state legislators. Now President Bush favors a constitutional limit on terms served by members of Congress. Evidently Mr. Bush, preparing for his 1992 reelection campaign, plans to hawk the idea as part of a strategy to roast Congress.
Implicit in the idea of term limits is a romantic vision of the citizen solon, the political Cincinnatus who leaves his plow, goes to Washington for a few years to serve the republic with wisdom, courage, and disinterest, and then returns to his furrows. Sure, some lawmakers have embodied this ideal. But most of the heavy lifting in Congress is done by experienced, professional politicians who have to master problems and procedures as complex as those faced by lawyers, surgeons, and business executives.
Term limits (the most common proposal is 12 years - six terms for representatives, two for senators) are a bad idea because they:
Restrict citizens' right to choose their representatives.
Would send packing skillful senators and representatives along with the hacks.
Would further shift power from inexperienced lawmakers to staff aides (who often have longer and closer ties with lobbyists than their bosses do) and to Washington's permanent bureaucracy.
Congress isn't nearly as stagnant as incumbency-return figures suggest. Many lawmakers return to private life or seek another office. In the 101st Congress, only 34 percent of representatives and just 20 percent of senators had served more than 12 years. Due to redistricting and other factors, a high turnover in Congress is expected in 1992.
The effect of turning congressional service into a 12-year episode rather than a career opportunity wouldn't be to streamline Congress, but rather to weaken it as against the executive branch and the bureaucrats. And it would only increase the number of opportunists who, having Congress on their resumes, become highly paid lobbyists.
Yes, there is work to be done both to improve Congress as an institution and to make congressional elections more competitive. But why remove lawmakers just as they start to get truly knowledgeable and effective?