Limits to Term Limits?

Rick Henderson's editorial "Darwinian Politics" (August/September) takes me to task for overselling the benefits of term limits. Henderson cites anti-libertarian votes from a number of freshman congressmen as evidence that term limits don't really work. But his argument is not compelling.

There are two main reasons to support term limits. The first is that power tends to corrupt, as Lord Acton admonished us, and the longer someone is in Congress the more likely they are to be so corrupted. The evidence on this score is very much on the side of term limits. For all the bad votes that freshmen have made, their overall voting record in Congress is significantly better than Congress as a whole. Had the whole House voted as the freshmen did, for instance, the Clinton tax increase would have been defeated and the Penny-Kasich spending reduction package would have passed.

Indeed, studies by the Cato Institute and the National Taxpayers Union confirm that the longer people are in Congress, the bigger spenders they become, whether they're conservatives, liberals, or libertarians (if you can find one there). Thus, the facts support the first argument for term limits.

The second and stronger argument for term limits is that the current system yields an adverse selection process--a result of relatively few open seats (a challenger has a l-in-10 chance of beating an incumbent) and the fact that even if one does win one has to be there six to 10 years in order to have any significant influence in Congress. This discourages citizen legislators--the person who would prefer to be in the private sector but is willing to spend two or four years in Congress--from seeking office in the first place.

The point is, the so-called freshman "revolutionaries" in the House are not the product of term limits. They're the product of another process and another political culture. With three-term limits in the House, a culture would develop in which the majority of people serving would come for one or two terms and then go back to their preferred status in the private sector. This kind of legislative environment would bring a remarkable number of clear-thinking citizen legislators out of the woodwork and would also direct their attention more to repealing existing legislation rather than deferring to senior members of Congress who protect the bad laws we live under today.

So Rick Henderson is wrong. Term limits will have a profound impact on our ability to reduce the size and scope of government. The freshman class is better than Congress as a whole because of the first argument for term limits. It is not as good as it should be because of the second argument.

Edward H. Crane
Cato Institute
Washington, DC

Rick Henderson replies: I wish I were as confident as Ed Crane that people who elect statists to Congress will suddenly demand an end to federal largess once term limits are enacted. Voters in congressional districts that get an abundance of government subsidies--whether they support poor people, research facilities, or military operations--are likely to find somebody who will go to Washington and defend that stream of money, even if the candidate in question finds it makes more sense to rent real estate in D.C. rather than buy.

The only way to effectively shrink the federal government is to limit its reach to those powers enumerated in the Constitution--a goal Ed and I share. I still don't see how term limits will get us there.

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