Opinion

Bill Cotterell: The trouble with term limits

Among other things, our Capitol Columnist says term limits can't assure voters that replacements will be improvements.

U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the new Speaker of the House, holds a town hall meeting at the Fox Theater downtown on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023 in Bakersfield, California.

U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the new Speaker of the House, holds a town hall meeting at the Fox Theater downtown on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023 in Bakersfield, California. Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Of all the promises U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy made in his humiliatingly long fight to get the gavel, the worst was his pledge to bring congressional term limits to a vote.

Fortunately, there’s no chance the constitutional amendment offered by 45 House Republicans will pass, especially not with the Senate still run by Democrats. Congress is not known for restricting its own powers.

The proposal would limit House members to three terms and senators to two. That’s six years in the House, 12 in the Senate. Both of Florida’s senators and five of our House members co-sponsored it.

They should know better.

Florida voters overwhelmingly adopted an “Eight is Enough” state constitutional amendment in 1992 that dislodged a lot of old mossback, along with some good officeholders, who were forced out in the 2000 election. For the past 22 years, Florida’s laws have been made by an oft-changing cast of fresh faces who do pretty much what their predecessors did.

If you’ve noticed any improvement in state lawmaking since 2000, please alert the political science department of your nearest university and the editors of your local newspaper. They will be most surprised.

That’s the first problem with term limits. There’s no way of assuring that the replacements will be great improvements.

Second, whether you think your Congress member is a flint-hearted conservative or a loony liberal, he or she didn’t get that way because of how long they’ve been in office. 

For instance, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi both went to Washington in the tail end of President Reagan’s second term. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia both arrived in the Trump years.

Holding political power can go to anyone’s head. They feel entitled to a fawning staff and having lobbyists writing checks for their next fundraiser, but most had pretty good egos before they decided to run.

McConnell’s political views and his votes in the Senate are shaped by the wants, needs, aspirations and dislikes of Kentucky voters — just as Pelosi’s politics reflects the lives of California residents. Ditto Ocasio-Cortez, elected in the Bronx and Queens, and MTG, running in the North Georgia mountains.

Whether they’ve been in Congress 36 years or three weeks, it’s their districts that produce them. If they were limited to six or 12 years in House or Senate, their constituents would tend to elect someone very much like them. The voters don’t change (unless, say, a state legislature erases and redraws district lines).

That term limits give only the illusion of change is illustrated in Tallahassee. When “Eight is Enough” took effect, Leon County voters elected Loranne Ausley to the state House in 2000. Eight years later, she had to leave, so Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda (a Democrat turned Republican after her time in office) took her place and served until 2016, when her four terms expired. 

So Ausley came back and served four years before moving to the state Senate, where ex-Sen. Bill Montford’s eight years had run out. 

Now, none of these Democrats necessarily did anything to deserve defeat. They dutifully represented the needs of state employees, a huge hunk of the Big Bend electorate, and did yeoman work in the daily grind of being in a Democratic minority. 

It’s almost impossible to defeat incumbents unless they screw up badly or their district lines get gerrymandered against them (as Ausley’s district was in the Senate last year, leading to the election of Republican Corey Simon). Business interests want stability once they’ve groomed their legislative allies, and the parties discourage primary challenges unless a member becomes an embarrassment.

There’s also a political effect of congressional term limits. Faced with surrendering a safe seat, members will start thinking of a well-paying lobbying job, maybe a sub-cabinet appointment if their party is in the White House, or perhaps going home to run for governor. That happens already but there’s no need to encourage it by artificially capping terms in Congress.

The argument for term limits is, usually, that new members bring new leadership and fresh thinking. That’s possible – not likely, but possible – yet it also means driving out the good with the bad, for no reason other than the tick of a clock.

Bill Cotterell is a retired capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at bcotterell@cityandstatefl.com.

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