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The problem with Tom Steyer's term-limits pitch

For members of either party to think voters' power should be limited by a gimmick is a mistake.
Image: Tom Steyer
Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer speaks at "Our Rights, Our Courts" forum at New Hampshire Technical Institute's Concord Community College on Feb. 8, 2020, in Concord, N.H.Andrew Harnik / AP

During last night's presidential primary debate, the candidates fielded some questions about gun violence, and Tom Steyer argued that political changes can lead to policy changes.

"The problem we have is that corporations have bought Washington, D.C. The gun manufacturers own the Senate of the United States. So even though more than 90 percent of Americans want mandatory background checks on every gun purchase, we can't get it through the Senate. So the question you have to ask yourself is, how do we change the Senate of the United States in a material way? ... That's why I am for term limits of 12 years for every congressperson and senator, to change who's in charge, to get rid of Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz."

Steyer has made this argument before -- we kicked it around last July -- but since the audience applauded his response, it seemed worth revisiting.

To be sure, we've heard related pitches from other candidates. Before his withdrawal, Beto O'Rourke last year unveiled a plan that called for a constitutional amendment that would impose 12-year limits on members of Congress. Andrew Yang touted a related idea last month.

Incidentally, this is 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.

I continue to believe that 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 corporate influence in policymaking tends to have 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.