OP-ED: Congressional term limits are a bad idea
The hidden costs and unintended consequences of capping Congressional service
In the halls of Congress, portraits of long-serving members might as well be painted onto the walls. Recently, the health and age of certain politicians have raised valid concerns. But the call for Congressional term limits as a solution overlooks several crucial dimensions of the problem.
A recent column in The Eagle pushes for term limits, focusing on the aging political landscape and citing health concerns in older members of Congress, including Sen. Mitch McConnell and the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Although well-intentioned, term limits are too simple of a solution for the complex issue of an aging government. It overlooks the nuanced relationships between voter participation, legislative experience and democratic representation.
The column claims that older politicians are more likely to focus on issues relevant to seniors, thereby ignoring the concerns of younger populations. This may be true on its face, but the ages of senators’ constituents play a significant role in shaping policy priorities. The reality is that low voter turnout among young people disproportionately skews representation in older generations’ favor.
Accurate voter representation is a demonstration of our democracy working as intended. Although 2022 saw strong youth voter engagement relative to most midterms, the demographic with the greatest reduced voter turnout from 2018 to 2022 was voters under 35.
It is not surprising that politicians prioritize issues that their base cares about, and the alternative — where politicians make decisions based on their own ideologies, lobbying pressure or the voices of those who don't vote — would be far more concerning.
Voter turnout in local elections is often less than 15 percent and largely consists of older white homeowners, which explains why local government is frequently geared towards “not in my back yard” proponents and pro-police stances. While perpetuating undesirable policy outcomes, this trend underscores that the system is responsive to those who actively participate in it.
The column mentions climate change as an issue that doesn’t receive enough attention due to our aging legislature, but it’s worth noting that polls show that only about four percent of voters consider this the most pressing issue. Meaning that significant recent advances in climate policy suggest — if anything — a political-elite-driven overemphasis on the issue. Relative to their turnout rates, young people are actually overrepresented in the Democratic Party’s core infrastructure.
Term limits seem like a way to bring in younger faces. However, research shows that they don’t significantly change the demographics of legislative bodies. Instead, they restrict the democratic choice of voters, who should have the right to keep effective lawmakers in office if they so choose. If a legislator is doing a good job and serving their constituents well, why should they be forced out of office?
The absence of term limits ensures politicians are beholden to their constituents because elections challenge them. Long-serving politicians must consistently secure their constituents’ approval to remain in office, and this cycle reinforces the democratic principle of accountability. If a legislator knows that they cannot run for reelection, what incentive do they have to listen to their constituents and act in their best interests? While incumbents certainly have an electoral upper hand, this is frequently a byproduct of effective governance and popularity. Take Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ first primary win as an example; entrenched incumbents can indeed be ousted if they fail to meet their constituents’ needs.
Rather than reducing corruption and increasing efficiency, evidence from state legislatures indicates that term limits can actually exacerbate corruptive influences. As their terms come to an end, politicians may begin thinking about their next career steps, which, for politicians, often involve lobbying. This shift in focus creates a conflict of interest, as legislators may prioritize lobbyist-friendly policies and spend less time on constituent casework. And when term limits usher in new people, these lobbying groups can use their deep institutional knowledge to take advantage of inexperienced legislators.
Consider the recent passing of Sen. Dianne Feinstein. While one could argue she should not have run again in 2018 due to her age, her choice not to resign in her later years was a calculated one for the Democratic Party; as the one-seat majority holder on the Judiciary Committee, her resignation would have emboldened Republicans to filibuster any attempt to replace her, effectively halting Biden’s judicial appointments.
Crafting effective policy is a complex task that requires a deep understanding of the issues at hand. This understanding often comes from years of experience working in government and serving constituents. By limiting the number of terms a person can serve, we would be constantly cycling out experienced legislators in favor of newcomers who lack the same level of understanding and incentives, possibly leading to polarization and ineffective legislation. Furthermore, the inexperience of term-limited legislators could tilt the balance of power towards the executive branch and bureaucracy, weakening the system of checks and balances.
While Congressional term limits may sound appealing, they are not a silver bullet for the complex problems that we face. Rather than looking for shortcuts, we should focus on raising voter participation across all age groups, thereby making our democracy more representative. The ballot box remains the most effective term limit, and it’s time that younger voters realize its potential to shape the political landscape.
Milo Stroik is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences.
This article was edited by Jelinda Montes, Alexis Bernstein and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis and Charlie Mennuti.