Billionaire Tom Steyer discusses climate change at a symposium in Sacramento, Calif., Aug. 20, 2015.
Photo by Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Term limits are a bad idea when Democrats push for them, too

Progressive billionaire Tom Steyer is the latest candidate to enter the Democratic presidential primary, and yesterday, he unveiled a political-reform plan with some worthwhile ideas, including independent redistricting commissions and allowing more Americans to vote by mail.

But Steyer’s blueprint also included this:

“There’s a widespread perception that the longer an elected official serves in Congress, the less connected they are to their constituents – and the more beholden they become to corporate interests and lobbyists. We propose a term limit of 12 total years that would allow our elected officials in both the House and Senate to focus less on getting re-elected and more on doing what’s right.”

He’s not the only Democratic candidate endorsing term limits. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) unveiled a related plan last month, which called for a constitutional amendment that would impose 12-year limits on members of Congress.

This happens to be the same idea Donald Trump touted in the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign – reversing his previous position – arguing that term limits would help undermine “special-interest dealing” on Capitol Hill.

Trump was wrong at the time, just as Steyer and O’Rourke are now.

I imagine most term-limit proponents mean well, but whether they appreciate the details or not, forcing experienced policymakers out of office, even if their constituents want to re-elect them, has an unintended consequence: inexperienced officials inevitably find themselves more dependent on outside groups and lobbyists, who are only too pleased to lend their expertise developed over the course of decades.

In other words, the policy intended to weaken “special-interest dealing” has the opposite effect in practice.

What’s more, as we also discussed a few years ago, there’s an underlying principle to consider: there’s simply no reason for the federal government to impose arbitrary constraints on voters’ ability to choose their own members of Congress – constraints that punish popular, experienced officials for being popular and experienced.

We already have term limits. They’re called elections. The mechanism for change was built into the Constitution from the outset: voters can evaluate their members of Congress when they run for re-election. If the public is satisfied, those lawmakers stay in office. If not, they’re replaced with someone else. The power is where it belongs: in the hands of the electorate.

For members of either party to think voters’ power should be limited by a gimmick is a mistake.