Is it time to bring back term limits?

Cover of "Grumpy Old Men"

Cover of Grumpy Old Men

The circus called Congress might be amusing if one in eight Americans didn’t rely on food stamps. Or if we weren’t engaged in two wars, with rumblings of a third. Or if health costs didn’t eat up one of every six American dollars without delivering anything close to universal or comprehensive care. Or if one in six Americans wasn’t either unemployed or underemployed.

But in these times, it’s not amusing; it’s pathetic.

The U.S. Congress is living in a state of gridlock and not just because of snowstorms.  As Slate notes,Republicans and Democrats can’t even agree on a definition of the word bipartisanship.

The public isn’t much less cantankerous. It does, however, share one overwhelming perception: That Congress is not doing its job.  So let me make a modest bipartisan proposal: It is time to resurrect the call for  term limits.

Let’s put aside our differences (my own perspective is that the Republicans are the party to blame and the Democrats are the party of lame).  Let’s agree that something is amiss, so much so that I agree with Newt Gingrich on something. For it was he and the Republican right in its Contract with America that called for term limits in the first place.

Back then I hated the idea. I bought the argument that experience led to greater wisdom in government. Now I’m convinced it leads only to inertia and greed (as demonstrated in part by how quickly Republicans deserted their plan once they took power).

But Gingrich was right: Congress shouldn’t be a lifetime club membership.

Granted, term limits has its risks. If it were to turn Capitol Hill into a  farm system for K Street lobbyists, limiting the duration that elected representatives can serve could increase rather than diminish the buying of Congress.  But I suspect if we limited each senator to two terms (12 years) and each member of the House to four (eight years), more people interested in serving the public might compete for public office. For one thing they’d have more of a chance of competing; incumbents are exceedingly hard to beat. For another, they could act at least occasionally with some motivation other than getting re-elected, over and over and over again.

Maybe with term limits,  someone would consider running for office who wasn’t looking for an old-age pension or a gold-plated health care plan. Maybe we’d have something besides a bunch of Grumpy Old Men making decisions to score points, salve their own egos and satisfy their lobbyists of choice.

Maybe things are just that desperate.


About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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8 Responses to Is it time to bring back term limits?

  1. scottnatlanta says:

    I have a better idea. How about public financing for campaigns where you have a certain amount you are allotted in public financing and that is all you are allowed to spend. To get financing you would have to get the number of signatures required to get on the ballot. Then you would open up the pool to more talent (possibly more whack jobs though), and you take a huge bite out of the power of lobbyists. I know, snowballs chance in hell…but aren’t they supposed to get 1-3 inches there? This year it seems snow is possible anywhere

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      I’m all for public financing Scott. But given the Supreme Court’s latest decision that seems about as likely as 2-4 inches in hell. Of course, Congress will never vote to put itself out of business either. At this point, though, I think the public is mad enough to impose its own term limits. That may mean that we elect a whole lot of neanderthals from the far right in November, which to me would be sad. Our incumbents, however, will get what they deserve. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. rockyinlaw says:

    If they were just “conservative,” their election (or not) in the fall would not concern me so very much. But I get the impression “they” are likely to be the far right wing nuts, who already have been feeling empowered enough to expose their un-PC biases — such as “literacy tests” and ending SS and Medicaid. If they are elected in significant numbers won’t that encourage them even further? What would be next? I shiver to think … This is our own red-white-and-blue version of the Taliban after all. On the other hand, the performance of the current bunch of Dems … well, you’ve described them well enough.

    What all of the do-nothings and nay-sayers are suggesting to me is we don’t need full-time legislators at all. Perhaps term limits aren’t going far enough. Maybe we should really do what the founding fathers did and only have part-time legislators …

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      My first thought is that the world is too complicated for that. My second is, hmmm, what do these guys do anyway? I share your concern about the coming election. It seems every time we take two steps forward we follow with three steps back.

  3. libtree09 says:


    I get it…we were supposed to be a nation of citizen politicians…but it makes little difference…the mayor of New York, Mr. Bloomberg…Mr. “I’m terrified of hairy terrorists” Bloomberg should be out. He is not.

    California is still in gridlock. It doesn’t seem to work…money and influence is the problem and with the new court any help in that area is dead.

  4. rockyinlaw says:

    Jerry, there’s got to be some good news somewhere. I’m wondering if I’ve mired myself down in criticism and negativity and disappointment and fear. Have I been listening so much to the hatred from the right that it’s seeped into my own perception of reality? .. … yah, yah, I know: only I can answer that. So what’s the good news?? Someone somewhere must have some good news …

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      Certainly in some ways there’s good news every day. I continue to believe that Obama is s decent and exceedingly smart man. He continues to move forward within the executive branch, improving environment regulation, taking steps make government more transparent, making decisions based on reflection and reason rather than ideology. And I do believe he’s beginning to be more aggressive in calling the REpublicans’ bluff even as he calls for more of their ideas. I’m far less enthusiastic about the performance of Democrats in Congress who seem to take more pleasure in fighting with each other than getting anything done. If they can’t get over it, they’ll get killed in the November elections and in some ways rightly so (though their foes are considerably worse). I’ll keep your words in mind though and keep an eye out for positive things to write about!

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