The Wrong Medicine: Term Limits Won't Cure What Ails Congressional Elections

By Mann, Thomas E. | Brookings Review, Spring 1992 | Go to article overview

The Wrong Medicine: Term Limits Won't Cure What Ails Congressional Elections


Mann, Thomas E., Brookings Review


Bill Frenzel's case for congressional term limits is disarmingly attractive. No fire and brimstone about the corruption of Congress. No grandiose claim that limits will produce higher quality members or more effective national policymaking. No expedient assertion that states can limit congressional terms without a constitutional amendment. Instead, Frenzel embraces term limits as the only available means of achieving an important but limited objective--namely, restoring competition, turnover, and accountability to an electoral system that has essentially lost all three.

But Frenzel's judicious approach to term limits should not obscure the radical character of his proposed reform. The burden of proof--diagnosing the problem and demonstrating that the cure is likely to work without debilitating side effects--properly falls on those who would alter the constitutional order. My view is that a persuasive case for term limits has not been made.

Legislatures under Siege

Congress and state legislatures are suffering from extraordinarily (if not unprecedentedly) low levels of popular support. With only a fourth of the electorate approving of the job these representative bodies are doing, the soil is fertile for the burgeoning term limit movement. But it would be a mistake to infer that declining competition and turnover in legislatures are responsible for the drop in public esteem, that the public's embrace of term limits is in any way novel, or that the term limit movement reflects a spontaneous uprising by the public to restore accountability in legislative elections.

Public confidence in legislatures is low because the news coming out of Washington and state capitals has been bad. Recent stories on state legislatures by Alan Ehrenhalt in Governing and on Congress by Richard Cohen in the National Journal are remarkably parallel in this respect. A stagnant economy, declining real wages and limits on upward mobility for many working-class Americans, suffocating budget deficits, and chronic crime and poverty in our cities have constrained effective policymaking and frustrated citizens. At the same time several developments in the political system have further damaged the reputation of legislatures. Divided government, now the norm in two-thirds of the states as well as in Washington, invites public squabbling between the branches, which diminishes the stature of both. The increasing focus on scandal, fueled by ethics and public disclosure statutes, tough law enforcement against public officials, and a press inclined toward feeding frenzies, leads the public to believe (incorrectly) that legislatures and politicians are more and more corrupt. And the situation is made even worse by negative campaigning--the growing tendency of politicians to cast their electoral and legislative opponents in the worst possible light.

Uncompetitive elections and low turnover are at most sidebars to the big story of the public loss of confidence in Congress and state legislatures. Using term limits to increase competition and turnover is unlikely to alter the public image of these institutions.

Indeed, the public's support for term limits predates the contemporary disrepute of Congress and state legislatures. Polls taken 40 years ago found roughly the same level of support as exists today. No surprise here. Term limits are irresistible to poll respondents: they provide a simple, no-cost means of registering skepticism and unhappiness with politics and politicians in general. What's different today is that activists have mobilized to bring term limit initiatives before the electorate. Frenzel portrays these activists as Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, united only in their status as outsiders, "estranged from a system that is rigged a against them." My own view of the term limit movement is slightly less benign. The energy and resources of the movement come overwhelmingly from conservative, libertarian business and ideological interests who share a strong distaste for government and a wish to control or weaken legislatures now dominated by Democrats. …

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