Gallup put out a poll today saying that 75% of adults would vote for Congressional term limits.
The numbers show this isn’t a partisan issue, either. 82% of Republicans would vote for term limits, as would 65% of Democrats, and 79% of independents. It’s also not an age issue, either. Across all age groups this number sits in the mid-70s. It’s a virtual dead heat. Seriously.
This sort of thing might immediately strike fear into the hearts of any democrat, liberal, progressive, or whatever you’d like to call yourself on the left. The immediate perception is that this would give an advantage to Republicans because of their recent tea party success. First, I’ll give you some relief and let you know that only 19 of the 87 GOP freshman from the 2010 election joined the Tea Party caucus. Don’t get me wrong, 19 is nothing to sneeze at, especially when you’re talking tea partiers, but it’s not the end of the world. Or is it?
You see, the danger in this isn’t that it could elect hardline Republicans in droves. According to this report by the Center for Governmental Studies politicians will continue to seek political jobs. Naive voters think that by putting term limits on their congressmen they’ll get more citizen legislators. The images that pop into mind is that of an everyday Joe taking a short break from his work to get things done in Washington. He rolls up his sleeves, knocks some heads around, puts some sense into those senseless bureaucrats, and once it’s done they come home and resume their “real” work. Unfortunately, that’s nothing but a fantasy. What actually happens is, as the Capitol Journal puts it, is “a form of political musical chairs for governmental office.” And, realistically, that makes sense. If you find a type of job you like and you’re good at it, you’re going to stick with it. As much as we may hate to admit it, some people are politicians through and through. Some people aren’t, and not many want to drop what they are in order to go be something they aren’t for a few years only to come back with less experience in their preferred avenue.
So politicians hop from place to place. Is that really so bad, you ask? Well, yes, it is. As Alan Greenblatt (GOVERNING correspondent) puts it, “short-term legislators aren’t prone to engage in long-term thinking.” In his article he retells the story of the speaker of the Main house, Steven Rowe, and his fight to lower the rates of mental illness and learning disability in early childhood. He got his agenda passed, but soon after he was forced out due to term limits the programs were gutted and as of the writing of that article, funding was slashed by a third. So, people come in and fight for something they believe in, and possibly something their constituents really believe in, then they hit their term ceiling and it all can easily go down the drain. New people come in with new ambitions, hoping to put out their own signature. Along the way they trample on others’ past ambitions. Realistically, it’s a terrible cycle. The government is something that’s going to last hopefully long after we’re individually gone, and so I don’t think we need to incentivize short-sightedness.
How about lobbyists? Surely they will have less power over people who will be leaving soon, right? Well, first we have established already that the people leaving aren’t just going back to their everyday citizen jobs. They stay in politics. So, that right there should dampen your spirits. Further dampening them is the JPTL 2002 National Survey of state legislators, which showed no change at all in the power of interest groups within states with term limits. Alongside that, non-term-limited politicians did not view the influence of these groups any differently than their fellow politicians that lacked the term limits. In fact, Christopher Mooney (Professor, Political Studies with the Institute of Government and Public Affairs) has a paper that asserts that “the evidence suggests that under term limits, there are more lobbyists, these lobbyists are working harder, their ethical behavior is sometimes worse, and they wield more influence in the legislative process…”
It’s these assertions, especially the last few in relation to lobbyists, the very thing I believe most people wish to muzzle, that paint a slightly disturbing picture of where approximately 75% of America wants their government to go. Despite sounding like it could fix all of our problems in one fell swoop, it would just exacerbate them. People need to get the corrupted lifetime politician image out of their head, not because they don’t exist, but because we’ll get that anyway. We need to think of the sorts of people we’d be barring from continuing their fights. People like Daniel Innouye wouldn’t be able to serve for as long as he did, and maybe we need to think about that a little harder before jumping to any rash conclusions.