May 11, 2018 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Don’t Weaken Congress with Term Limits

Forget that populist mantra. Let's make it stronger by decentralizing power.

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Politics can usually be trusted to keep group think in check, because one political party is usually working hard against the other. But sometimes the parties see something they can mutually benefit from without appearing to have lost ground. The latest bipartisan group-think craze: term limits for members of Congress. 

US Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas said he’s signed on to a bipartisan effort to restrict terms in the House and Senate: six two-year terms for representatives and two six-year terms for senators. O’Rourke is challenging US Sen. Ted Cruz, casting himself as young man of ideas ready to fight the establishment. We can infer reasonably that talk of term limits will endure. He said: “We have term limits for most offices, from the presidency to the Mayor of El Paso. Let’s have term limits for Congress too.”

This is a bad idea, but before I explain why, let me tell you a story of the last bipartisan group-think craze that seized the minds of Republicans and Democrats but that didn’t do what they said it would, and indeed, it arguably made congressional gridlock worse. Those with long memories will remember the tale of the dread earmark. 

“Earmarks” are provisions put into law that set aside federal money for specific projects in the states. They are ways for members of Congress to horse trade, to sweeten deals and to otherwise grease the skids of legislation. They were also unpopular in the run up to the 2008 presidential election for reasons I don’t quite understand. Both candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, were against them. McCain called them “a gateway drug … to out-of-control spending and corruption.” Sadly, Obama concurred, saying he “suspended any requests for my home state.”

Again, I don’t quite understand the opposition. I especially don’t understand why Obama’s Illinois constituents would have thought this a good idea, seeing how he was cutting off their access to money. In any case, opposition to earmarks gelled to become conventional wisdom so that anyone  raising doubt was seen as defending corruption. 

This was clearly the case after the 2007-2008 financial collapse and the rise of “tea party” conservatives in 2010. They saw earmarks as part of rampant federal spending. But conservatives weren’t alone. Liberals searching for common ground took issue with the “impropriety” of earmarks. That’s the kind of bipartisanship that President Obama simply could not ignore. He said he refused to sign any bill into law that contained any sort of earmarks. Senate Democrats later banned them. 

That’s where we are today.

So did the ban do what it was supposed to?

It did curb spending a little, but not much. Curbed spending might have discouraged some kinds of corruption, but again, not as much as we were told. Some researchers say earmarks were no worse than any other kind of government spending. Others go the other way, saying their absence actually contributed to partisan gridlock, making it impossible to transcend ideological divisions and making the 112th and 113th Congresses among the least productive in American history. 

I think that’s debatable, but that’s for another time. My point today is twofold.

One, as I said, is that group think is a helluva drug. More importantly is two: that group think that leads to banning earmarks—or to term limits—is making Congress weaker. What we should be doing is finding ways to make Congress stronger.

Terms limits sound great. They have that populist ring to them.

But they would drain Congress of leadership, expertise and memory. In short, they would weaken it. Let’s go in the other direction. Bring earmarks back for one thing. For another, empower committee chairs so they can use earmarks to horse trade again. More generally, let’s push power in Congress downward, so that power is not as concentrated as it is now at the leadership level. If power were more decentralized, I’m guessing Congress would be stronger and probably more productive. 

None of that sounds populist. But that’s the kind of debate we should be having.

I hope we do before this latest bipartisan group-think craze becomes permanent.

Believe it or not, I have great conversations with readers on Twitter. Join me there by clicking @johnastoehr. And don’t forget to send this newsletter to your friends! If you have an idea or topic you’d like me to consider, write me at johnastoehr at gmail.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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