I made the mistake of posting a kind of silly comment on a Google+ political post. That meant that I got updates on every comment made to the post and it wasn’t pretty. And I wasn’t interested. It was a comparison of Obama and Bush the Younger, and as you can imagine, there wasn’t a great deal of thought on either side. But one person on the Republican side made a comment about the need for Congressional term limits, and I lost it: I replied. I actually went out of my way to be nice, so no one responded. But it got me thinking about the issue of term limits and I figured that now is as good a time as any to explain my thoughts on the matter.
In general, terms limits are something that appeals to both conservatives and to people who don’t think much about politics. The reason is that it is built on the idea that governing isn’t a skill; anyone can do it! Well, we in California got a chance to try that out. We made Arnold Schwarzenegger governor for four years. Say what you will about the man, he is smart and capable. And he was a disaster. Then in came Jerry Brown—a career politician—and he showed how it is done. Politics is a skill. And we need as many skilled professionals in government as possible.
Imagine having the equivalent of term limits for auto mechanics. After eight years—generally when someone has finally become really good at his job—we don’t allow him to fix cars anymore. That would make no sense. Yet that is what we do with politicians, even though they get better at representing their constituencies over time. Yet, in the recent Mississippi Republican primary, a big argument against Thad Cochran was exactly that he was good at bring federal money back to his state. That’s nonsense!
I understand the corruption issue, of course. But that isn’t solved by term limits; that’s solved by taking money out of politics and not turning our politicians into corporate whores. If anything, term limits make politicians more dependent upon campaign money. At least established politicians have high name recognition. But what conservatives are really concerned about is “ideological corruption.” What they don’t want is for politics to be politics. They want politicians to stay ideologically pure so that no compromises are ever made. This is not the problem what most people worry about.
What’s more, inexperienced politicians are more dependent upon lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). So the question really is, who do you want writing your laws: career politicians and their own trusted support staff, or special interest groups who are totally unaccountable. Additionally, politicians who know they are out after two terms (or whatever), have a huge incentive to do special favors for people who can give them good paying jobs after they are out of office. And yes, yes, yes! This problem too already exists, but term limits would only make it worse.
Above all, the problem with term limits (and I’m against them even for president) is that they are anti-democratic. They are a way of limiting the voting choices of other people. Congress is rightly disliked. But most people are pretty happy with their own members of Congress. So there isn’t a single reason that Congress is disliked; in fact, the reasons are largely completely at odds with each other. Republicans don’t like Congress because the Democrats control the Senate and Democrats don’t like Congress because Republicans control the House.
The way I see it is that I want representatives who work for the interests of my district and my state. If voters in Mississippi feel differently, that’s fine: throw the bums out. But making me throw out my representatives just because you think they are bums sounds a lot like tyranny to me. But even if it isn’t quite that bad, it is anti-democratic and it promotes bad government.