Term Limits for Congress Are Still a Bad Idea, Mr. Trump

(Bloomberg) -- One bad idea is back:

Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump
I recently had a terrific meeting with a bipartisan group of freshman lawmakers who feel very strongly in favor of… https://t.co/PdidU1XzvL

The U.S. is a large, complicated nation. It requires expertise to write laws for such a nation. Anyone can have good ideas, but it takes some real knowledge to turn them into laws. If members of Congress are only to serve for a short time, then they're going to turn elsewhere for that expertise. Where? Lobbyists are happy to write laws if Congress will let them. So are bureaucrats in executive-branch departments and agencies. So is the president — well, not the president specifically, but the White House staff and others within an administration. Term-limited legislators would inevitably turn to one of those choices. And neither lobbyists nor federal bureaucrats are term-limited, nor are they likely to be interested in the particular circumstances of any member's constituency. 

While there's no guarantee that legislators will always do a good job of representing their districts, they usually try for the very good reason that their jobs depend on keeping their constituents happy. Term limits remove the election incentive for legislators who have reached their final term and radically devalues it for the rest. Those who think the problem with U.S. democracy is that elected officials pay too much attention to voters might applaud that change. The rest of us consider good representation to be the very essence of democracy. But even if you wish members of Congress were not so responsive to voters, there's no way to know who they will represent once the electoral incentive is removed. 

What legislative term limits are designed to do is transfer influence away from voters and toward interest groups and unelected bureaucrats.

There's another brand-new bad idea on its way. The Washington Post's Robert Costa reports that this same meeting generated talk of term limits for congressional staff. This has all the disadvantages of congressional term limits — and more. Casey Burgat at the R Street Institute has some detail, but the basic story is that just as with legislators, the alternative to competent staff is government by lobbyists and bureaucrats. 

Even if either of these was a good idea, however, it's also a tell that Republicans are talking them up right now. Pushing constitutional amendments (such as legislative term limits or balancing the budget) is almost always a dodge to duck responsibility for action. Republicans still have majorities in the House and Senate along with a Republican president. If they had good ideas, they could try to pass them instead of proposing ideas that require supermajorities to be enacted. Granted, it's very difficult to get much done with a narrow Senate majority. But it's hardly impossible. Reconciliation procedures to bypass a filibuster are available, although they would require Congress to pass a budget. Republicans aren't even bothering to try. It's also possible that a slim majority could get to 60 in the Senate by finding a compromise that would appeal to moderate Democrats. Again, there's no sign that they're going to try. 

As Jonathan Chait says, "Conservatives do have their hands on the controls of the ship of state, and they are making it perfectly plain they have no idea what to do with it." Constitutional amendments are just a smokescreen to make that less obvious. As a supplement to a full legislative agenda, they're mostly annoying but might, I suppose, contribute toward symbolic representation in some way. But as a substitute for regular legislation? Don't be fooled by it, whether it's term limits and balanced budgets from Republicans or campaign finance and whatever else from Democrats. 

1. Mariam Matevosyan and Graeme Robertson at the Monkey Cage on what's happening in Armenia.

2. Dan Drezner has the case for free trade.

5. And Paul Krugman on the tax cut so far.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

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