I started a discussion on term limits a couple of years ago on this site and between what I said then and what I have said on other sites I think my position on term limits is fairly clear – I believe that term limits generally produce benefits that far outweigh the drawbacks that opponents will cite. I think solid evidence of that is that not one state (out of 15) that has enacted a term limit law and had it start limiting terms has ever repealed their term limit law. (Six states did enact laws and then repeal them before they took effect – including Utah.) Coming from that position, I was happy to hear the announcement from Senator Jim DeMint that he plans to introduce a term limits amendment soon.
While I have some questions about some of the specifics of what he plans to propose like how he decided that three terms would be the appropriate limit for members of the House or how flexible he would be on the particular limits he is proposing, I found one statement that he made very insightful about the last time that term limits were seriously pursued by the political class.
Fifteen years ago, Republicans – who had been out of power in Congress for forty years – made term limits a centerpiece of their “Contract with America” agenda.
The term limits constitutional amendment ultimately failed, in part because so many new reform-minded congressmen imposed term limits on themselves. After six or eight years, these members voluntarily went home, leaving behind those Republicans and Democrats who fully intended to make a career inside the beltway.
The fact is, party doesn’t matter when it comes to reform. If you want to change the policies, you have to change the process.
He’s absolutely right that no significant reform will come in how Washington operates until we make structural changes that force it to operate differently. His comment that many of those who wanted to enact term limits voluntarily term-limited themselves – thus crippling the attempt by leaving it in the hands of those who had no interested in being term limited was insightful. I realized that anyone who wants to make such a change would have to take the attitude and make a pledge to stay in Washington as long as possible until they either got term limits enacted or else until they no longer believed that term limits were worth pursuing. Those who will impose their own limits independent of everybody else will limit their own comparative effectiveness by granting more power to those who do not believe in their ideals (specifically the ideal of having term limits).