Congress, Maine need more, better term limits

Who needs term limits?  We got them this year without a law.

Term limits are supposed to ensure turnover among elected officials, breaking the power of a few bosses and bringing in new legislators attuned to the popular will.  They don’t exist at the federal level, and the Maine version needs a truth-in-labeling review.

This year, without any formal requirement to retire members of Congress, voters produced 100 new faces in the House of Representatives and 10 new senators, where the Republicans gained seats.

The Democrats picked up 40 House seats, resulting in a shift of party control.  President Trump’s waning popularity in suburban districts gets much of the credit.  To be fair, the president’s party historically loses some House seats, when candidates lack the presidential candidate’s coattails.  But this setback was bigger than usual.

Many senior GOP House members decided not to seek reelection.  Some were obviously unhappy about life with Trump.  Others, finished being committee chairs, opted to cash in on their experience.  The political rise of women, as candidates and voters, led to House-cleaning.

The model for term limits was George Washington who gave up the presidency after two terms, though he would surely have been able to be reelected.

Washington’s precedent was the unwritten term limit for the president until Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected four times.  That prompted a constitutional amendment limiting the president to two terms.  No other limits were adopted, even for the vice president.

The argument against term limits is that officials become experts on issues and on how government works, when they hold office longer.  Otherwise, short-termers might be open to influence by bureaucrats or lobbyists.

In practice, legislators leave the details of lawmaking to bureaucrats and are open to influence by lobbyists who contribute major funding to their campaigns.  The promised benefits of holding office for long terms appear to work better in theory than in reality.

Political courage suffers when an official focuses on political survival.  Look at GOP Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona, the two most outspoken critics of their party’s president.   They could only challenge President Trump, because they were not seeking reelection this year.

There is no chance the necessary constitutional amendment to make term limits the general rule would be adopted.  That would require the consent of the very members of Congress whose terms would be affected.

House Republicans provide a partial solution.  They limit members to six years serving as a committee leader.  Then, each must cede the seat to another Republican.  No law is required for a party to set such a rule for its own members.

One result is that, after a chair’s term ends, he or she may be reluctant to fall back into the ranks.  Instead, they often retire and take a job where they can use what they have learned in government.  Though turning government service into personal profit is less than ideal, it does ensure legislative change.

Concerns about Nancy Pelosi as House Democratic Leader or Mitch McConnell as Senate Republican Leader could be eliminated if they were subject to similar term limits.  However experienced they are, they would be forced to allow younger people to learn about leadership.

The effort to replace Pelosi this year has fallen short.  Some new Democratic members, who do not back her, are likely to be needed to put her over the top when the full House votes in January.  Second District Rep. Jared Golden and his anti-Pelosi allies could offer their support in return for a deal on leadership term limits.

Change would also result from bringing all congressional districts down to be as close as possible to equal population.  Seats can be added by Congress itself, something it has not done for a century.  There would be roughly 100 new faces in the House.

Today’s leaders hold on thanks to the reliable support of their long-term colleagues.  An enlarged and redistricted House could eliminate many of today’s safe seats.  With more elected officials seeking top roles, leadership limits become possible.  So, even without formal term limits, the parties can make them happen.

In Maine, a person is limited to only eight years as a House or Senate member.  But they can then jump to the other house and back again endlessly and some do.  After two terms, a governor can take a term off and run again, as Gov. LePage now threatens.

Maine law makes a mockery of state term limits.  The voters could fix this sham.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.