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Term Limits are the Wrong Answer

Once again, good conservatives waste time on stupid and pointless posturing over unhelpful irrelevancies.

By Petrarch  |  February 12, 2021

As shellshocked conservatives flail around looking for a magic bullet to save their beloved country from an enternity of socialist darkness, it's natural to reach for any idea that comes to hand.

Natural, but stupid.  Conservatives have floated a great many ideas over the years; some of them have even been tried.  As we've said before, every complex problem has a solution which is attractive, simple, and wrong.  How well have any of them worked?

If an idea has been tried since, oh, the 1970s, it can be safely discarded as useless.  If it was going to work, it would already have done so.

This isn't to say that all such ideas are bad, necessarily - broad-based tax cuts, for instance, are always helpful on the general principle that it is preferable and morally right for people to keep more of what they earn.  But they've occurred off and on for longer than any of us have been alive, under Democrats and Republicans alike, and have made no difference in the grand scheme of things.

Look at it this way: For all that the Trump tax cuts were nice to have, would we as a nation have been better off if instead he'd used his political capital to push through nationwide voter ID and paper-ballot-verification requirements?  The answer speaks for itself.

Alas, there are hoary old conservative ideas that sound good and repeatedly seduce well-meaning and sincere conservatives, but which experience has shown to be a devastating error.  And perhaps the worst of these is Term Limits.

It Seemed Like a Good Idea At The Time

On the face ot things, term limits for politicians seem like a rational answer to the desire of our Founders to keep our leaders close to the people.  What could be more effective, than making sure our leaders were part of the people for most of their lives?

And if our Federal government still operated as originally designed - with a Congress that passes laws, and an Executive that enforces them - this might have merit.  If Congress is mostly ordinary citizens, any laws that are passed would most naturally need to be intelligible to the ordinary citizens who write and vote on them, to everybody's benefit.

Alas, that ship sailed well over a century ago.  Congress may pass laws, but generally speaking, they're interpreted however the executive branch bureaucracy sees fit.  And as the last four years have proven, the bureaucrats have their own agenda without regard to whatever the elected President wants done.

So take a skeptical stance, and look at this article from a rightfully well-respected and generally excellent conservative publication we regularly read and often cite:

To start, peg the salary of congressmen and senators to the median full-time income, which was $52,000 in 2019. If they claim to be unable to live on such a measly salary, they might ask themselves how the average American gets by. 

Get rid of all expense accounts for meals and travel. They can pay for their own dinners and buy commercial plane tickets just like us. Prohibit private jets and mooching military flights. And no priority travel. No skipping TSA checkpoints. They may complain that they're much too busy to spend so much time in lines at airports. Aren't we all. 

Get rid of the expense accounts for office staff and postage. We don't need politicians mailing what are essentially self-advertisements at our own expense. The private sector could start three or four new companies each year with the amount each congressman and senator spends getting his letters written.

The author continues on in this vein, demanding that elected officials be required to use public transportation, put their kids in the worst public school in their district, use VA medical care, and so on.  He then concludes with the traditional demand for a two-term limit.

Much though we'd be entertained to see Nancy Pelosi stuck riding the dog, we all know that would never happen.  She's vastly rich and would just shell out for her own private jet, considering it well worth both the economic cost and the carbon cost to maintain the power she so enjoys.

Which, of course, is exactly why our Founders decreed that Congresscritters should receive a salary, and paid for their expenses from earliest times: they wanted ordinary people to be able to afford to hold office.  In the British Parliament of their day, none of this was provided, with the perfectly obvious result that only rich people ever held office.

Obviously, it's helpful to be rich today - duh!  When has that ever not been the case?  But at least it is possible for normal people to get elected and do the job, sometimes to all our detriment as we see with ex-bartender Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Our Founders would, of course, have been aghast at her beliefs, her lack of couth, her age, her inexperience, her gross miseducation, and her sex.  But they would not in the least have minded the fact that she came from humble beginnings; indeed, they would have considered that to be her one mark of accomplishment, that she was able to pull herself up that way.  The British they fought a war to separate from, in contrast, would have found her self-rise her most offensive aspect - all of the rest being commonplace among the upper-class, but not to be borne from a nobody of no notable parentage.

Not paying for regular transportation back home?  What effect could that possibly have, but to steep new Congresscritters even more thoroughly in the swamp?  Not paying for postage to write to constituents?  That's their job, for crying out loud!

And as for not paying for office staff, well, that leads us to the truly grave problem.

California's Cautionary Tale

As with most disastrous political innovations, term limits have a potent history in California.  In 2012, Proposition 28 decreed a lifetime maximum of 12 years in the State Legislature - not just 12 consecutive years, but 12 years at all.

Has California's governance improved one jot since this supposedly revivifying change?  Excuse us while we recover from a fit of hysterical laughter.

No, California's problems have if anything gotten worse.  It is every bit as corrupt as ever, and now, it is effectively a one-party state, as Democrats have supermajorities to do pretty much anything they want.

Why didn't term limits help?  Because the vast size of California's government was already so immense that no term-limited politician could ever hope to understand it well enough to actually accomplish anything.  They must lean on experienced career staff, who of course aren't term limited and have a vested interest in growing the government as rapidly and as expensively as possible.

Now, what sort of a person chooses a career as a staffer in a state legislature?  It's safe to say: not a freedom-loving government-slashing firebrand.

Thus, in the unlikely event of a true conservative ever being elected to California's legislature, they'd have two choices that would reach the same result: Hire a staff equally as fervent, and also equally as inexperienced and thus as ineffective as themselves.  Or, hire experienced, knowledgeable staffers who understand the system, but believe in the opposite of everything they ran on and were elected to do.  Either way: no hope for improvement, as Mr. Trump found out so often to his sorrow.

And by the time our hypothetical California conservative is just beginning to understand how things work in his own right... whoops!  Term limit time, and out the door he goes.

The Democrats, of course, have no such problems.  They have a more than adequate stable of supporters and staff all throughout the bureaucracy, public-sector unions, lawyers, officials of every sort, and so on.  They can swap legislators in and out at will, secure in the knowledge that the folks doing the actual work are all theirs anyway.

Shape Up and Think Straight

Let's consider Congressional term limits in the light of what we can observe in California: Who, pray tell, would be worse hurt by term limits?

Would it be the Democrats?  Sure, Nancy Pelosi would lose her spot, but there's no shortage of AOCs yearning to take her place.

On the other hand, how many Ted Cruzes are there who would be ready and able to replace him?

Conservatism suffers from a serious shortage of qualified and effective leadership; it always has.  We had Donald Trump for four years, and there's still nobody who has learned how to slug the left in the face as he did.  Yes, we have Ron DeSantis and Kristi Noem, maybe a few others.  The list would barely fill an index card.

But for every Republican who fights hard and effectively for conservative principles, there are a thousand Democrats who fight just as hard and just as effectively for their side.  We need to keep the handful we've got, and not sacrifice them for no gain.

So, if you're looking for real institutional change, ditch the calls for term limits - and yes, I'm looking straight at you, Ted Cruz!  If you must fight for something that will never happen, at least make it something useful, like national voter ID and an end to birthright citizenship.

Yeah, that would get rid of Kamala Harris too... but hey, if they can impeach someone who's already out of office, why can't we Constitutionally un-define someone who's still in office?