Term Limits are a Bad Policy. Here’s Why.

Jonathan Tobin provocatively argues that the long-serving late Senator Frank Lautenberg and active Congressman John Dingell are the poster children for term limits. Children being metaphorical, clearly. As for me, I am more than a little saddened by closing of the WW2 veterans’ chapter in service to the nation. I’ve always thought that our legislature was enriched by the wisdom of ex-soldiers.  Regardless, Tobin makes a good point:

That’s the point that Tom Bevan makes today at RealClearPolitics.com and its one worth pondering. The ability of people like Lautenberg and Representative John Dingell, who will break the record for the longest-serving member of Congress on Friday, to hang on into their old age isn’t so much testimony to the nation’s desire to make use of the wisdom of our elders as it is to the way the system is still rigged to help incumbents.

OK, but are term limits the answer?  Aside from the title, the essay is silent on its policy proposal.  The only way we can discuss this, then, is to put words in Tobin’s mouth.  Let’s go!

No, term limits are not a good idea. The reason I say that is because they are a shortcut. We wish democracy worked better and didn’t allow incumbency to self-serve. But it doesn’t, so instead of reducing the power of incumbency, we treat it superficially.

In fact, this kind of artificial institutional change is rather common. In BALANCE, we draw a comparison to the “Tall Man” problem that plagued basketball in the middle of the 20th century. The artificial fix to this problem, seriously considered, was to set a height restriction on athletes allowed to play the game.  Imagine a speed limit on running backs, or an IQ limit on PhD candidates! Instead, the game of basketball adopted institutions that naturally addressed the tall man problem: widening the key, adding a 3-point arc, and alternating possession instead of jump-balls after each basket scored.

What natural rule changes would reduce the power of incumbency?  One would be to make gerrymandering unconstitutional (again). Another good reform would be to allow individual candidates to raise unlimited funds, instead of channeling finances through the established political parties.  And the good news is that the U.S. is moving in the right direction on both of those fronts.

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