Congressional Term Limits

The idea of congressional term limits is appealing to many Americans, and it’s not hard to see why. Members of Congress have about a 95% re-election rate despite the American public broadly disapproving of Congress in the aggregate. Incumbents have little incentive to engage constructively with their constituents under these circumstances, since their seats are already largely safe. However, I do not think congressional term limits are the solution. By themselves, they solve few of these problems, since incumbents who have not reached their term limit will still be just as likely to be re-elected, and the nature of partisan gerrymandering means that most districts will remain uncompetitive even if we instituted term limits tomorrow. On top of this, it will also create the new problem of eliminating much of the institutional knowledge and experience that is acquired with years of service, while limiting good politicians who have the bona fide support of their constituents to only a few terms.

In my view, we need a renewed focus on eliminating the structural factors that give incumbents an undue advantage and make them less accountable to the people. Chief among these are partisan gerrymandering and access to campaign finance. Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing districts so as to maximize your party’s dominance, and it has markedly reduced the competitiveness of congressional districts. Before 1978, according to a study by the Political Studies Association, incumbent re-election rate averaged around 75%, which is explainable by innate factors such as the fact that an incumbent is likely to be a higher-quality candidate due to having won at least one election already (a principle referred to as “quality selection”). But since then, re-election rates have been increasing steadily as the number of competitive districts (those won by a margin smaller than 10%) has plummeted due to the abhorrent practice of gerrymandering. I believe that drawing districts using non-partisan citizens’ commissions, as some states already do, would go a long way toward fixing this issue and making congressional districts more competitive.

At the same time, the monetary advantage that incumbents enjoy has become increasingly apparent. Incumbents account for the vast majority of congressional campaign spending.  Incumbents outraised challengers by a factor of 2.5:1 in the 2018 midterms and reliably do so every election cycle. A 2006 study from the American Journal of Political Science found that when states imposed campaign spending limits, incumbency advantage decreased by an average of six percent. All of this makes it abundantly clear to me that we need prompt reforms to level the playing field between incumbents and challengers. This could come in the form of hard caps on campaign spending and “soft money” contributions that have come to dominate our electoral system. But regardless of how it is implemented, campaign finance reform would help eliminate the structural advantage enjoyed by incumbents much more so than term limits would.

Term limits may seem like an appealing quick fix to a rotten system that allows unaccountable incumbents to have near-invincibility. But the truth is, they do not actually target the root cause of the problem. Even if we imposed term limits tomorrow, all of the same unfair advantages that incumbents enjoy would remain in place as long as they were still eligible to run for re-election. Congressional elections would not become more competitive. We need to target the root causes of the problems that ail our democracy, and we don’t need approaches that only target the most visible symptom of the problem rather than the root cause.