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October 19, 2010 / Candice

I’d like some change with a side of term limits, please.

Cross-posted at

Every election cycle we hear some keywords: “Politics as usual” “Change” “reform” “blah blah blah”, it’s the same old drivel over and over again. In 2008, President Obama ran a successful campaign using Change™ as a motivator to get millions of people to vote for him. Unfortunately, the change he promised was not the “change we need”. In order to “fundamentally change” the way Washington works we need to fundamentally change the way Washington works and the only way to do that is with term limits.

“Why term limits though, we can just “vote the bums out”, right?” The problem is, and Cato points this out in their 1998 policy analysis, What Term Limits Do That Ordinary Voting Cannot

Voting your bum out is not a solution when what you want to do is oust the other districts’ bums. For that you need term limits, which oust the other districts’ more senior bums and thus strongly increase equality in legislative representation.

Why would we want to vote some other bum out over our own? Well, it depends on whether you have a freshman legislator or a senior legislator. Those with a junior representative tend to favor the idea of term limits over those with a senior. The rationale behind that is simple: money. A senior legislator has more ties and probably sits on a powerful committee or two while a junior representative doesn’t have the clout necessary to provide his district the same level of services as his senior counterpart. It’s about a balance of power and without term limits, we simply won’t ever have that.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the tea party in this discussion. A favored rally cry among the tea party crowd is indeed, “vote the bums out!” Fact of the matter is, if the tea party succeeds in voting the bums out, it’s not going to negate the need for term limits by proving that it’s possible to vote the bums out. Rather, it will only make the rationale for term limits stronger. You see, as I mentioned above, we don’t really want to vote our bums out. We like our bums, they give us goodies. We want other, more powerful bums out of office, like Harry Reid or Jim Oberstar but not our favorite bums like Michele Bachmann and others. Sure, they’ve been in office for a term or two, no need to worry, yet. But when it comes down to it, these candidates will fight tooth and nail to prevent losing their job and, perhaps more importantly, their power.

Furthermore, the rate at which incumbents are reelected is staggering. According to, in 2008, 94% of house incumbents were reelected. In the same year, 84% of senate incumbents were reelected. Previous elections hover around the same rates.

If you compare the reelection rates and the congressional approval rates you’ll see there’s a big disconnect between how Americans approve of congress and how they vote.

Source: Gallup

Why does such a disconnect exist? It seems to me that if you disapprove of some thing, you probably don’t want to keep doing that thing. Yet, every election year, we do.

Some might argue that many Americans actually take politicians by their word. Others may say that those who are voting for an incumbent don’t want to lose the benefits or pork, doled out to them by their senior representative. They may think that a junior representative might make cuts to the funds they’re used to enjoying. There are other theories out there that insist that the voting class is too uninvolved to understand what their dealing with so they chose to vote for the names with which they are most familiar. Fact of the matter is, there are a million reasons Americans continue to reelect the representative of whom they disapprove.

Are term limits going to solve all our problems? No. But term limits will put the power of our elected representatives in check and will increase turnover on powerful committees and limit the power lobbyists have on any given legislator. Term limits also increase the competitive nature of our elections. By eliminating, or severely reducing special interest spending on elections, we’re able to have better candidate fields to chose from, not just well funded ones. I find it difficult to see any downside to term limits. Our legislators are elected for one reason only, to represent their district to the best of their abilities. Unfortunately, the longer they’re in D.C. the less likely they are to put the needs of their district first. In order to have real balance of power in this country we need term limits. Not only nationally, but locally as well.


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