Term Limits: The Hard Jump from Theory to Practice

I hung a hundred campaign cards in 80 minutes yesterday… and that included one 15-minute at-the-door, in-the-chill conversation with one voter about guns, Donald Trump, and, in a pleasantly productive change of pace, term limits.

Multiple voters have asked me about term limits over the past month. I invariably acknowledge concerns about power corrupting but then respond, consistent with public statements I’ve made about term limits for years, “We have term limits: they’re called elections.”

The voter-neighbor who brought up term limits yesterday said we limit Presidents to two terms, so why not impose similar limits on other elected officials?

I turned my neighbor’s attention from the Presidential race to South Dakota races. How do you feel about your U.S. Senate and U.S. House choices?

My neighbor didn’t issue ringing endorsements of Senator John Thune or Rep. Kristi Noem, but he said they’ve both done some good things for South Dakota, and he doesn’t really know much about either Paula Hawks or Jay Williams. I mentioned the challengers’ websites, then asked the key question:

John Thune has served two terms in the Senate. Kristi Noem has served three terms in the House. Why not limit their terms right now with your vote?

Term limits, like complaints about Congress, sound great until we start talking about the Congresspeople you want to vote for.

My neighbor spun his wheels a bit. I tried to help him out of his mud: if voters are smart enough to recognize corruption in public offices, they are smart enough to vote the corrupt bums out. Why not trust the voters? Why impose some big-government rule taking away the voters’ right (and responsibility!) to pick the elected officials they trust? If 50% plus 1 of my neighbors like the “job” John Thune is “doing” (sorry, mock-quote outbreak!), why should the law take away their choice?

If my opponent has been in the Legislature for seven terms (yes! success! candidate finally brings the conversation back to the sale he came to make!), I don’t want to beat him by rigging the election rules to prevent him from running again; I want to beat him fair and square with the voters.

I don’t know if I changed his mind, but my neighbor was perfectly civil and thoughtful throughout our conversation. I’d love to know if he will decide to put theory into practice and limit anyone’s terms (Thune, Noem, Nelson, Novstrup, Kaiser) on November 8.

15 Responses to Term Limits: The Hard Jump from Theory to Practice

  1. Roger Cornelius

    Donald Trump has repeatedly said he would ‘throw the bums out’ of congress and the senate using term limits.
    Oddly, both Thune and Noem have promised to vote for the man that promises to make them unemployed.

    When I hear people say that Thune and Noem have done good things for South Dakota I always ask for them to be specific and tell me what those good things have been. You guessed it, sputtering and silence.

  2. In theory, we already have term limits via elections but in practice we know incumbents (regardless of performance) hold a distinct advantage when running for office.

    The fact is, we see many members of Congress who have made a lifelong career out of being in office and simply aren’t effective. This goes for both sides of the aisle, but after a while it seems like the voters just continue on and support the person who has always been there.

    The problem is you don’t get any new ideas. You have people who haven’t been in the “real world” (I like mock quotes as well) for decades. You have people who have histories of being bought by special interests and who have figured out how to work with the right people to ensure a steady supply of campaign cash.

    But perhaps above all, we end up in this cycle where politicians spend a great deal of their time running for re-election as opposed to doing the jobs we sent them to Washington (or Pierre) to do. Congress actually schedules themselves extended breaks to allow members to campaign and there is no concern over the lack of actual legislating going on.

    So I’m a fan of term limits. I think we need to continue to bring in new talent with new ideas and fresh perspectives. I feel we need to push out the lifelong members who aren’t re-elected due to their actions but instead due to their name recognition or network of lobbyists and SuperPACs.

    We feel the President shouldn’t serve more than eight years – I see no reason why members of Congress shouldn’t be held to that same standard. Perhaps one term for Senators (or modify their terms to four years and allow them two terms), and four terms for the House would be more than enough.

  3. Donald Pay

    Count me as a supporter of term limits at the state and national level for the reasons Craig has stated.

  4. mike from iowa

    I’m all for keeping VT Sen Leahy in and tossing iowa’s wingnut Grassley out. Then Leahy gets the judicial committee back and delouse it before confirming Madame Potus’ nominees.

  5. Cory,
    I’m with you on this. We have a say every two, four, or six years.
    Taking a conservative approach, I don’t want big government telling me who I can or can’t vote for.
    I have seen what has happened in Nebraska where term limits were instituted for the legislature. Lots of qualified, compromise-oriented people are gone. Some candidates go unopposed. And then you have competitive races after someone is term-limited. What’s the value in that? In that scenario, if I’m from a rural area where I have had a four-term senator and he’s got good committee assignments and represents his constituents well – that’s all gone now, replaced by fresh blood, but someone without any clout or understanding of how the system works.

  6. Indeed, Steve, why not let voters have their choice? The only reason certain legislators serve for several terms is that their constituents keep electing them. We shouldn’t pass laws to take responsibility for democracy off of ourselves.

  7. But Craig, what stops each voter from counteracting those incumbent advantages with their vote? What stops the term-limits advocate at his door, when reminded that Thune has served two terms, from saying, “Well, heck, then I’m voting against Thune”?

  8. Honestly I feel it is simply a matter of laziness and ignorance. Very few people I speak with are well informed on the candidates or the issues. Instead, they either skip a large section of the ballot, or they simply vote the party line. They have no real motivation to learn and their disconnection is made evidence in the voting booth.

    We might like to believe these disconnected members of society don’t vote, but that isn’t the case. In fact society has been fed this line that voting is our “civic duty” for so many decades that many people vote even if they would rather just stay home. We have confused our civic right with a duty… and it seems to have impacted the electorate.

    So these days it takes quite a bit to displace an incumbent even when they haven’t been effective. I had the opportunity to ask a very loyal Republican friend of mine to list me three accomplishments of Congresswoman Noem. He was unable to list one. Then I asked him to list three accomplishments of Senator Thune… again he was unable to list anything specific and instead had to resort to saying he has helped fund the war against terror or pass a transportation bill. But he couldn’t list one single thing that Thune himself was responsible for.

    I didn’t bother to ask him to list any accomplishments for Senator Rounds – but I’d bet in the voting booth if he is given the chance he will vote for all of them again. Because it is easy, and it doesn’t take any research.

    So what stops the voters from voting out incumbents? Complacency, laziness, a distinct lack of legislative awareness…. you name it. So the question is – what is actually easier to accomplish: Somehow convincing voters to become informed before casting their ballots, or simply enacting term limits to ensure we get some fresh voices every few years?

  9. I agree that passing term limits (even via ballot measure, since legislators are unlikely to pass term limits on themselves) would be easier than educating voters every year to make good choices and vote out ineffective incumbents.

    Also easier than democracy: making Trump dictator for life and getting rid of lengthy, costly, messy elections.

    We do democracy not because it is easy, but because it is right.

    I know, I’m trotting around on my high horse, taking an absolutist position, and not dealing with the practical reality that trusting the voters to limit terms by their own intelligent study of the candidates ends up leaving handsome do-nothings like Thune and Noem in power. But do I really have to give up this measure of democratic choice at each election to get better representation?

  10. Donald Pay

    There’s nothing democratic about having a long-term legislator from a district in which he will never be challenged. My state senator is the longest serving legislator in the country. He was in the Wisconsin legislature when I was student here in the 1970s. He’s had opposition once or twice in all that time.

    He’s a good legislator. When I send him a letter, he sends me back a nice two page explanation of his position. I love him. He does a good job, and generally does what I want him to do. But let’s not pretend he’s had a lot of new, interesting and compelling ideas over the last 40 years. He’s pretty much a known entity, and institution all by himself.

    Anyone in my district who has had a hankerin’ to have any new ideas considered has to move to another district, and try it there. Only Democrats have tried to unseat him in the past. This is a solid Democratic district. A Republican ain’t winning against Fred Risser. Think of what 40 years of the same old, same old does to democracy. It’s more of an oligarchy in my district.

    What I experienced in South Dakota was different, but worse. In South Dakota the lobbyist influence and executive branch control was much heavier. The more years of legislative “service,” the more the legislator was serving the lobbyists or the executive branch. Term limits keep legislators more in tune with districts.

  11. I am not sure what oligarchy is, Mr. Pay, but I imagine it is like what Mr. Sibby is or what he talks about when it comes to blogs. Sibby, the Oligarchist. I like thinking that.

    But your story is very interesting. This fellow, Mr. Risser, he sounds like a pretty swell sort. If he wasn’t the people wouldn’t keep sending him back. He is a career politician. He would feel really bad if not re-elected. I understand people not wanting to make an old man feel bad.

    I wonder what people in the legislatures you were lobbying who were in the pockets of the moneymen. I appreciate your thought on term limits. I, for one, think we need term limits and we need them to be short. I shall buy you a beverage for your thoughts. Thank you.

  12. Darin Larson

    Cory, I use to be young and idealistic like yourself. I use to think that democracy provides its own term limits.

    Now I am in favor of term limits based upon a number of factors that have become apparent to me. Incumbents are constantly working toward the next election, not by working on legislation or visiting with constituents and researching problems. They are dialing for dollars, doing fundraisers and doing “solids” for big donors. The advantages of incumbency are too often insurmountable and insulate them from the effects of their failure to do their job.

    Each situation is different depending upon the legislative position at issue, but I think that 12 year term limits for members of Congress make a lot of sense. Senators could serve two terms and members of the House could serve six terms. 12 years is long enough to retain institutional knowledge, especially with the overlap of different members. The first 6 years for a senator might be disproportionately spent on fundraising for reelection, but then the second term can be more focused on the issues. Likewise, House members know there is an exit sign at the end of 12 years. It does not become a way of life. Fundraising becomes less of a way of life when you know you have a limited amount of time to tackle the real issues and you are running out of elections to have to worry about in any event. Lobbyists and special interests would have less power because the legislators are no longer beholden to them for the next election.

    We already have term limits for President and 8 years and 2 terms has worked reasonably well. 12 years for members of Congress would work similarly.

  13. Roger Cornelius

    Term limits have been discussed for decades and mostly it has to do with how the wind is blowing in given election cycle.
    When I see that Thune hasn’t accomplished much in two terms and Kristi hasn’t accomplished much in three terms it makes me favor term limits.
    What it comes back to is that voters have to take an active role in removing them.
    The question is how do we make the term limit change on a national level?
    Can it even be accomplished?

  14. Don Coyote

    Aristotle said it best: “The noblest arrangement is to rule and be ruled in turn.” – “Politics” – Chapter VII, Chapter 3.

  15. Darin, I would vote to repeal the 22nd Amendment.