Term Limits: Painkiller, Not Cure


US president-elect Donald Trump called for congressional term limits during his campaign. He’s not yet been sworn in, but Congress is already back in session and answering that call. On January 3, US Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) — one of Trump’s opponents in last year’s GOP primaries — and US Representative Ron DeSantis (R-FL) proposed a constitutional amendment limiting Senators to two (six-year) terms and Representatives to three (two-year terms).

Term limits are incredibly popular. Voters enact them whenever given the opportunity to do so at the state level. In an October poll conducted by Rasmussen, 74% of likely voters supported congressional term limits, with only 13% opposed, and with super-majority support across party lines and among independents.

Are term limits a good idea? Sure. I personally hope this amendment gets the required 2/3 vote in both houses of Congress and is ratified by 3/4 of the states’ legislatures.

But don’t mistake term limits for a panacea.

As some wags would have it, we already enjoy term limits. They’re called “elections.” Voters are free to send politicians home at the end of any term (provided those politicians have election opponents, which is usually although not always the case). But they seldom do so. US House and Senate re-election rates bottom out at about 80% in a bad year for incumbents.

Two favorite arguments in favor of term limits are that they will replace the corruption and careerism of incumbency with wholesome “citizen legislators” who labor briefly in the political vineyards before returning to private life. But will that really work out?

Sure, a term-limited congressperson can’t leverage the power of seniority to reward backers and cronies with government favors like a “congressperson for life” can. On the other hand, a term-limited congressperson might just sell out more quickly and completely, making as much hay as possible while the sun briefly shines.

And in the face of term limits, the forces of corruption may focus more on the “farm team” strategy of shoveling graft at up-and-coming city council members and state legislators so that they arrive in Washington already primed to play ball after years of doing just that.  Pre-corrupted, so to speak, before they even begin their maximum six years  in the house and 12 years in the Senate, which is pretty much a career anyway.

Limit terms? OK. But don’t expect miracles. An expiration date may help, but it’s no substitute for sending politicians home for bad behavior.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.


New Boss(es), Same as The Old Boss(es)

English: Aerial view of the White House in Was...
English: Aerial view of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Donald Trump ran for president in part on a promise to “drain the swamp” that is Washington, DC. He positioned himself as a political outsider, beholden to no one and capable of bringing sweeping  changes to a federal government set in its ways. But as Inauguration Day approaches, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the fundamentals aren’t going to change much.

While Trump’s cabinet picks do reflect the usual party line changing of the guard, they’re hardly “outsiders” by any conventional definition.

So far Trump has named three sitting members of Congress to head up executive branch departments: US Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) for Attorney General, US Representative Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) to run the Office of Management and Budget, and US Representative Tom Price (R-GA) for Secretary of Health and Human Services.

His Secretary of State designee, Rex Tillerson, is putatively a private sector type as CEO of ExxonMobil. In reality he’s the consummate political insider. He’s a frequent speaker at Council on Foreign Relations events and sits on the board of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; these are two of the most “establishment” organizations on the block. Over the years he’s donated around half a million dollars to Republican candidates and PACs.

Secretary of Labor nominee Andrew Puzder is national co-chair of the wholeheartedly establishment American Enterprise Institute.

Incoming Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao is a former Deputy Secretary of Transportation, a former Secretary of Labor, and the spouse of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

Speaking of McConnell, even if Trump wanted to clean house he would have to deal with Congress. McConnell remains Senate Majority Leader; the Democrats have a new Senate Minority Leader (New York’s Charles Schumer), but only because Nevada’s Harry Reid retired. On January 3, Republicans in the US House of Representatives were nearly unanimous in re-electing Paul Ryan as Speaker, as were Democrats in retaining Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

So far, the incoming Trump administration looks a lot like George W. Bush’s fifth term (the third and fourth were served by the supposedly “transformative,” hope-y, change-y Barack Obama, who gave us eight years of business as usual), with a Congress to match.

That might actually be the best outcome we can hope for. But I suspect Trump’s most devoted supporters will be sorely disappointed.

If 2016 was The Year of Trump The Outsider, 2017 looks set to be The Year of Sorry, Trump Was Only Kidding.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.