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Term Limits For Legislators Are a Dreadful Idea


It is not news that very rich people tend to think they are Knowers about things they in fact know nothing about. This can lead a plutocrat to, to pick a random example, think that the best use of tens of millions of dollars to advance progressive causes is to launch a stillborn vanity campaign for president rather than using that money to support actual politicians who could conceivably win elections. And the thing about these vanity candidates who don’t know what they don’t know is that they might use the place they bought on the debate stage to recycle the incredibly shitty ideas of conservative fake-populists from the 90s:

Tom Steyer isn’t exactly the breakout candidate of the 2020 Democratic primaries, but he tried to light a fire under his campaign Wednesday night by proclaiming himself the man to support if you believe in term limits.

“I’m the only person on this stage who will talk about term limits,” Steyer declared, promising that if he’s elected, “You’re going to have to have new and different people in charge.” While Steyer did not specify who he intends to term limit, it’s safe to assume that he was speaking about members of Congress; the president is already term limited.

One problem with this proposal is that it is unconstitutional. As the Supreme Court explained in U.S. Term Limits, Inc v. Thorton (1995), which struck down an Arkansas state constitutional amendment that sought to term limit members of Congress, the “fundamental principle of our representative democracy” is that “the people should choose whom they please to govern them.”

If the people want to elect a representative with a long tenure in office, that is the people’s right.

But even if congressional term limits were constitutional, they would still be a terrible idea. A 2006 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures examined states that imposed term limits on their state lawmakers. It found that term limits tend to increase the influence of lobbyists and lead to a “decline in civility” that “reduced legislators’ willingness and ability to compromise and engage in consensus building.”

Term-limited lawmakers, the NCSL explained, “have less time to get to know and trust one another” and “are less collegial and less likely to bond with their peers, particularly those from across the aisle.”

They also aren’t experienced enough to develop the knowledge and legislative skills they need to govern effectively. Term-limited lawmakers cannot spend enough time learning how the legislature works or mastering difficult policy issues. They also can’t rely on senior colleagues to give them this information because there are no senior colleagues.

Sometimes other people aren’t talking about your ideas because they are extremely dumb, and this happens to be one of those times.

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