Friday, November 11, 2016

Why Term Limits are an Idiotic Idea


Term Limits really don't accomplish anything, but it sounds cool to say you are for them.


I was talking with some friends the other day and the subject of politics came up.   And one friend barfed-up the usual nonsense that "what is wrong with America" is "those folks in Washington!" and if we only had term limits, the world would be a better place.

The problem with this argument is multifold.

First, anytime someone tells you that all the woes of the world could be solved with a simple solution, you should be skeptical.   Simple answers to complex problems are usually the wrong answers.   Yet many think that America would be paradise on earth "if only" we (a) went on the gold standard, (b) built a wall between us and Mexico, (c) deport all Mexicans, (d) declare ourselves a "Christian Nation" or (e) whatever other tweetable solution you can name.

The problem with these "solutions" is that in addition to being nearly impossible to enact, they will not solve complex problems that require nuanced solutions.   Tossing out all the "Mexicans" and "building a wall" isn't going to "provide more jobs" (in an economy with a 4.9% unemployment rate).   Rather it will just make it very difficult for farmers to harvest crops, resulting in higher food prices for everyone.    People picking watermelons are not "taking away" jobs from Americans, who would not stoop to such work, particularly in a low-unemployment economy.

Similarly, term limits aren't going to solve the "problem in Washington" magically, assuming that there is a "problem in Washington" and not a problem in the voting booth at your local election center.  Again, whenever someone makes an argument, challenge the premise which we will see below, is false.

One of the biggest causes of gridlock in the current congress isn't the "Washington insiders" who are holding up legislation, but rather the tea party newcomers, many of whom pledged to serve only one or two terms.  They held up legislation, shut down the government, and then left, never obtaining enough seniority to get choice committee assignments and actually accomplish something significant.

The second problem is, it ain't gonna happen.   While "term limits" is on Trump's "first 100 day" agenda, it would require a Constitutional amendment which requires a two-thirds majority vote of both houses and then 3/4ths of the State legislatures.   That's a tall order for 100 days.

And the problem is, Mitch McConnell has already said that term limits are a non-starter (along with a lot of the Trump agenda).  Two-thirds of the people who want to hang on to their jobs are not going to vote for this.   And getting the States to go along is also problematic, as State legislators often hope that they too, someday, will be ensconced for life in the House or Senate.

In other words, it ain't gonna happen, period, so get over it.

Third, the problem with ensconced incumbents begins at the voting booth.   People actually voted for these representatives and they like them.  If Americans really and truly wanted "term limits" they could simply vote for a different candidate.   They Don't.   Again, Mitch McConnell (who like Paul Ryan, is starting to look more and more rational in the Trump era) points out that we already have term limits.  "They're called elections" he says, wisely.

The "term limit" proponents constantly fail to figure this out.  They want the other guy voted out of office or prevented from serving another term.   But Senator Klaghorn who brought back the bacon to have the stealth submarine build in his jurisdiction, well, he's a good old boy - we don't want to get rid of him!

If a majority of voters really wanted term limits, they would vote to toss out incumbents.  They don't, with regularity.  Incumbents stay incumbents because people vote for them.

In a way, it is like these idiots "protesting" the outcome of the election.   I wonder how many "protesters" who are burning police cars and smashing store windows even bothered to vote and of those who did, how many voted for third party candidates.   Maybe instead of rioting, they should have been organizing and going door-to-door to "get out the vote" in a swing State this summer.   But they didn't.

Also, the advantage of incumbency is far over-stated, just as the advantage of "big money" in elections now appears to be overstated.   Incumbents, we are told, can amass war-chests of cash and thus outspend their opponents and remain in office for life.   And yet, many incumbents are voted out of office, with regularity, when they screw things up.  So long as they remain effective legislators, they stay in.

Both Obama elections and the current election defy the concept that "big money" wins elections.  Obama collected lots of small donations of millions of people, rather than relying on huge donors.   He won twice, in spite of Citizens United and the Koch brothers.  Hillary raised millions from Wall Street and largely ignored smaller donors.  She lost to Trump who raised half the cash she did.  Having a "war chest" doesn't mean you win the war, as money and votes are not the same thing.

Yes, incumbency has advantages, but it doesn't make a Senate or House seat bulletproof.   And remember that House members run every two years, which basically means they are running for re-election constantly.

The fourth problem is that the premise is flawed.   People who argue for "term limits" are often simple-minded people who heard the phrase on right-wing talk radio or from a friend.   "Term limits" makes for a great sound-bite or bumper-sticker slogan, but it is not really a well thought-out policy proposal. Again, a simple solution to complex problems sounds appealing and it sounds cool to expound this idea to your friends - after all, you've solved all of America's problems with one simple solution!   You're a bloody genius, unlike those schmucks in Congress!

But what exactly is the problem again?   The premise of "term limits" is that somehow these ensconced old-timers have become too comfortable in Washington and don't appreciate the hurtin' and sufferin' going on in Bumfuquue, Iowa, where a man has to work almost two hours at the finger-cutting factory to fill both diesel tanks on his quad-cab dually Ram pickup.

The reality is, of course, that America is doing pretty well, thank you, even with these awful "incumbents" trying to ruin it.   Inflation is at an all-time low.  Mortgage rates are under 5% as is unemployment.  Incomes are going up.  The stock market has been on an eight-year tear.   All things that Trump will claim credit for, even before his inauguration, of course!

If these incumbents are screwing up America, they are doing a pretty shitty job of it.

With regard to "social issues" the folks in the House and Senate are not really responsible for that at all.   The gay marriage thing was done by the Supreme Court, and Congress can't overturn Roe v. Wade anymore than it can pass a law making Pi equal to three.

So the premise is flawed.  America has the strongest economy in the world, and no, we aren't  going to hell in a handbasket, even under President Trump.   Well, let's hope, anyway.


The fifth problem is that term limits would have deprived us of some of the best legislators in our history Legislators such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Tip O'Neill, Bob Dole, or even Newt Gingrich would not have had the impact they had (for better or worse, depending on your views) if they had served only one or two terms.

The major work of the House and Senate is not accomplished by the newbies, but rather those old "war horses" who have been around the block a few times and know how to get things done, such as by compromising and making deals.

Legislating, like sausage-making, is a process best not observed, the old saying goes.   Often odious things have to be done to get things done, and idealistic one-termer tea party types couldn't stand for this.  The "my way or the highway" attitude is what got us into trouble in the first place with gridlock in DC.  But again, we have to question the premise of even that argument as....

The sixth problem is that Americans actually want gridlock.   The idea that "nuthin' is gettin' done in Washington!" is somewhat flawed to begin with.  Budgets are passed with regularity and the only time this doesn't happen is when - you guessed it - those "term limit" tea party types decide to shut things down.

But sometimes getting nothing done is a good thing.   The status quo is often the best place to be, as it likely is today.   Constantly meddling in our nation's legal and regulatory system is often a bad idea, as it provides no consistency or predictability for individuals and businesses.  Small incremental changes are usually a better idea.   The real tragedy of Obamacare is that it forced everyone to change their health care plans for a couple of years and now we will be forced to change back - to what we don't know.  People and markets prefer stasis to radical change every year.  Obamacare might have survived if it was more modest in scope or phased in changes over time.

Americans, with regularity, often elect a President of one party and a Congress of the other.   Even when one party controls the White House and Congress, often little gets done due to bickering, deal-making, and just general disagreement.   If Trump thinks his tariffs and term limits will even get a vote from McConnell and Ryan, he is sadly mistaken.    Even with the GOP "running everything" a lot will not get done and that is probably just as well.

Sometimes, the best thing Congress can do is to do nothing.


* * *


Term limits are not an answer to anything.  They are a favorite whipping-boy of the far right and the libertarians.   But it never is made clear how term-limits (like the gold standard) would fix anything at all, much less "everything".

Rather than embracing simple solutions to complex problems, I would suggest a better idea is to better understand complex problems - from all angles -and realize that complex problems often require complex solutions - solutions that can't be explained in a sound bite or in a slogan.

Stop thinking in Tweets and bumper stickers - if that can even be considered "thinking".

Term limits are not the problem with America.  The problem with America is that 90% of the population can't think in terms of more than 140 characters.   99% of Americans couldn't even read as far as this sentence.

Did you?


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