Term limits could transform congress



Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., attends a political rally in Pass Christian, Mississippi, in 2014. (John Fitzhugh/Biloxi Sun Herald/MCT)

By Ben Sheppard | Columnist

Imagine the hectic day-to-day life of a senator — rushing from meeting to meeting, negotiating legislation and dealing with media and constituents. Now try doing that without even being able to remember where the Senate meets.

In an interview with Politico last week in one of the hallways of the Capitol, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., had difficulty doing just that. And when a reporter asked if Cochran would stay as chair of the Appropriations Committee — a vital Senate group that has jurisdiction over all discretionary spending — the senator could only repeat the question back, seeming confused.

This hallway interview isn’t the only concerning thing regarding Cochran. In a recent vote on an amendment to a tax reform bill, Cochran voted “yes,” even after instruction from an aide and Republican leadership to vote “no.” He eventually changed his vote after prodding by the aide.

Cochran only returned to the Senate last week, spending the previous month recovering from urological issues, unable to vote. And while the Mississippi senator, who’s been in office since 1978 and elected seven times to his seat, is among the worst examples of hazardous old age in Congress, he certainly isn’t alone. More than a quarter of the Senate is more than 70 years old, and personal health issues are becoming more and more widespread.

Congress already isn’t adequately representing citizens. Data from the Pew Research Center show recent sessions of Congress have been among the least productive in history. And because of a lack of term limits, older members of Congress continue to hold the spotlight and stymie new debate. These real concerns show the time for term limits has arrived.

Most importantly, the lack of term limits is an affront to democracy. In 36 states, including Pennsylvania, the governor has the power to appoint a successor who can serve until the next November election if a senator dies in office — robbing the people of their right to choose their representation if a senator dies. Term limits would limit the chance of this occurring.

And a clear majority of Americans supports term limits — 74 percent of respondents supported term limits for Congress in a 2016 Rasmussen poll.

Politicians across the political spectrum support term limits, ranging from hardline conservatives like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., to Libertarian former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. Khanna has been especially vocal about the issue. Along with Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Tex., Khanna introduced a piece of legislation in May that would limit members of the House to six two-year terms and the Senate to two six-year terms.

Khanna framed his bill as a move for greater diversity in Congress.

“Enacting term limits will give more voices the opportunity to serve in Congress and bring fresh ideas and new energy to Capitol Hill,” Khanna told Politico.

While the 115th Congress may be the most diverse in history, Khanna is right — Congress is still overwhelmingly white and male. Term limits would give new and more diverse members of our society more opportunities to serve the public and represent their communities.

Opponents of term limits, like former Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., might say voters can remove incumbents from office through elections if they aren’t satisfied with them. Yet despite Gallup polling consistently showing historic lows for Congressional approval ratings, the body’s incumbency reelection rate has hovered around 96 percent since 2012 — even lower than the turnover rate for European monarchies during that time.

Incumbency offers several benefits, including greater financial resources, more press coverage, ongoing delivery of constituent services and more experienced campaign operations. These benefits are incredibly difficult for challengers to overcome in both the primaries and general elections. Term limits would remove most of these benefits and allow fresh ideas to have a fairer shot.

The road toward term limits is daunting. In a 1995 case before the Supreme Court, a five-justice majority found that term limits would need to be implemented through a constitutional amendment. That would require a daunting two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress. And with their seats threatened, many members of Congress aren’t interested in moving the process forward — a 2012 Senate vote for a constitutional amendment for term limits failed with only 24 in favor.

If Congress won’t act, the states must. If two-thirds of the states call for a constitutional convention, congress must convene one. Then three-quarters of the states would have to ratify the amendment before it would become law.

Neither number is improbable. As of this month, 27 state legislatures have made general calls for a constitutional convention. This means only seven more states are necessary to convene a constitutional convention.

The time for term limits has come. Without them, we give the benefit of the doubt to incumbents who are unfit to represent their constituents. This does a disservice to all voters and denies us the chance for new, diverse and capable representation. It’s time to fumigate Congress and bring these disappointing politicians home with term limits.

The daily functions of government can’t be left to the disoriented and worn-out likes of Mississippi Republican Sen. Cochran. Congress should not be a retirement home.

Ben primarily writes about American politics and libertarian issues for The Pitt News. Write to Ben at [email protected].


Editor’s note: A previous version of this column said that in 36 states a governor has the power to appoint a successor to a senator who dies while in office. While a governor may appoint a temporary successor, voters in all 36 states can vote in a successor in the next November election. The Pitt News regrets this error.

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