ANALYSIS — Out of the White House and out of power on Capitol Hill, Republicans have gone back a quarter of a century in their playbook in search of the trick play that will get them back into the game: term limits.
It wasn’t the key cog that helped Republicans take control of the House in the 1990s, and it’s unlikely to be the game-changer in upcoming elections. But it’s not stopping ambitious Republicans from rolling it out once again.
The gang decided “the system fails the American people” if members serve more than two six-year terms in the Senate and three two-year terms in the House, according to the Cruz press release that called “political careerism” a departure from what the Founders intended.
“[I] will continue fighting to hold career politicians accountable,” added Cruz. Rubio, who has been in elected office for all but four years of his adult life after law school, is running for a third term in 2022.
“Conservatives are inexplicably trapped in 1993, when a decades-long Dem lock on Congress led us to believe that Congress was the problem. In reality, as we should know by now, Congressional weakness is the chief dysfunction in the Constitutional order and a threat to liberty,” Rubio’s former general counsel, Gregg Nunziata, said on Twitter.
“But, supporting term limits is cheap performative stuff, unlikely to happen and if it did, counter productive to the pretended ends. Conservatives wasting their breath on this cynical nonsense are conservatives who aren’t meaningfully leading,” added Nunziata, who was also former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Plank in 1994 ‘contract’
Republicans keep coming back to term limits, in part, because it was a plank in the GOP’s Contract with America in 1994, when Republicans won the House majority for the first time in 40 years.
Steve Bannon says Donald Trump’s impeachment defense strategy is not working and needs to be changed.
Mr Trump’s former chief strategist was not impressed with the open day of work by the ex-president’s team of lawyers.
Bruce Castor’s opening in the Senate trial was widely criticised by Republican Senators and compared unfavourably to that of the Democratic House impeachment managers.
A frustrated Mr Trump reportedly “screamed” at his TV as he watched the trial from his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida.
And Mr Bannon agreed that the first day did not go well for his former boss.
“The strategy is not working … this is asymmetric information warfare: Democrats argue a coherent made-for-TV fantasy that works on an emotional level,” Mr Bannon said, according to the Associated Press.
“Lindsey Graham’s team argues the constitution and nobody cares. Changes needed and needed now.”
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Never mind that Republicans were well-positioned in those midterm elections before the contract was released in late September 1994, the subsequent Citizen Legislature Act in 1995 didn’t get enough votes to go anywhere (in part because 40 Republicans voted against it), and many GOP members later violated their own term-limit pledges (no need to mention George Nethercutt by name). The fact remains: Republicans can’t quit term limits. (Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick J. Toomey signed on to the term-limits proposal and, to his credit, bowed out of the House after three terms and is not running for a third term in the Senate in 2022.)
While Republicans see political opportunity, it’s even less clear whether increasing the turnover in Congress would help the legislative environment in Washington. Term-limit proposals have consistently been at odds with the experts who cover Congress.
“[I]nstead of channeling ambition in the right, public-interest direction, term limits have the opposite effect: New lawmakers immediately begin planning for ways to reach the next level, or to find lucrative lobbying jobs when they are term-limited out,” Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann wrote in The Washington Post nearly a decade ago. “They have no incentive to do things for the long-term and no regard for maintaining their own institutions. With the loss of expertise among senior lawmakers, power devolves to permanent staff members and to lobbyists.”
“If anything, voters should look to candidates with a stake in the regular order, an understanding of the need to compromise, a willingness to build expertise in important policy areas, and an incentive to listen to constituents — all features that are more likely among politicians with longer horizons,” they continued.
Turnover vs. experience
Implicit in the term-limit proposal is that there are too many politicians who have been on the Hill for too long, and not enough turnover.
“I wish there was less turnover,” said David Hawkings, editor in chief of The Fulcrum, on Monday. “There’s not nearly enough institutional memory in Congress anymore. There are not enough members willing to stay long enough to learn how to do the hard work of building relationships and legislating.”
Clearly, those warnings don’t trump the potential political benefits. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley thinks there’s some juice in the idea, or at least doesn’t want other 2024 presidential contenders getting too far out in front of a key issue, since she tweeted her approval of the senators’ proposal.
If Republicans are sincerely concerned about politicians sticking around the Hill too long, why not reach further back into the bag of ideas and add an age limit to Congress?
Senator in ’60s wanted age limit
Back in 1965, Republican Sen. John Williams of Delaware advocated for a mandatory retirement age of 65 for elected officials. Even though a bill never passed, Williams confirmed the spirit of his belief by not running for reelection in 1970, when he was 66 years old.
The idea isn’t completely absurd. In Canada, senators have to be between 30 and 75 years old. And while the average age of a House member in the 117th Congress is 58 and the average senator is 63, there are more than a handful of members who are considerably older.
At a minimum, a top age limit could be a way for Republicans to finally get rid of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The California congresswoman is one of 11 House members who are 80 or older. Another 18 members are between 75 and 80, not counting New York’s Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat who turns 75 on Feb. 19.
Although, an age limit would also end the reign of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky senator is one of 11 senators 75 years old or older. That doesn’t count Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat who’ll join the 75+ club on Feb. 13.
Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe isn’t the oldest senator. But the 86-year-old Republican was just reelected in 2020, which means he’ll be serving in congress into his 90s. Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama, 86, just announced he won’t seek reelection. So he’ll be gone before he reaches 90. Eighty-seven-year-old Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has not announced whether he’ll run again. Of course, many of the elderly senators have their faculties but anyone who has been covering the Hill knows of members who have served past their prime.
“Someone who is in his or her 80s brings experiences to the table, to the debate, that no one else can bring,” added Hawkings, about the diversity of ages and tenures in a Congress without limits. “It’s one of the few things that keeps Congress really interesting; the mix of people with too much and too little experience.”
If the term-limiting crowd really wants to get serious about cracking down on career politicians, they should embrace a resign-to-run law, similar to what is in place at the state level in five states. Members of Congress couldn’t neglect the job they were elected to do and use it as a springboard for higher office. Under such a law, if a senator is not in his or her final year in office, they’d need to resign before running for president, hypothetically. Then we’d see who is serious about legislating, or campaigning.
All of these measures would likely face a similar fate: defeat. They would require a constitutional amendment, which would require two-thirds support in Washington and in the states. That would mean two-thirds of the members of Congress voting to limit their current power and state legislators voting to limit the future power they hope to hold.