Congressional term limits are a bad idea

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This post is part of Polyarchy, an independent blog produced by the political reform program at New America, a Washington think tank devoted to developing new ideas and new voices.

Donald Trump's latest gambit is a new set of "ethics" reforms, organized around that evergreen slogan: "It's Time to Drain the Swamp in Washington, DC."

Trump's reforms are mostly boilerplate, revolving-door proposals that would almost certainly do nothing to change how anything works in Washington.

The most eye-catching idea is that he wants term limits for members of Congress.

Obviously, it's hard to take anything Trump says seriously at this point.

But he is picking up on an issue where solid majorities agree with him. In one recent survey, 75 percent of Americans said they supported term limits, including 65 percent of Democrats.

For that reason, it's worth spending a few minutes on this point, because it does get to a fundamental problem with how the public views Washington. There is a perennial myth that the problem with Washington is that the longer people spend there, the more corrupt they become. Therefore, the only way to ensure good judgment in politics is to constantly have a bunch of fresh-faced lawmakers who are total rookies and don't understand how anything in Washington works.

Since 15 states do have term limits, we actually can know something about their effects. And the political science literature here is pretty unequivocal. Term limits are the surest way to weaken the legislative branch and empower the executive branch. Term limits are also a great way to empower special interests and lobbyists. Basically, what term limits do is shift power toward those who are there for the long haul.

For example, here's the conclusion from a 50-state survey published in 2006: "Term limits weaken the legislative branch relative to the executive. Governors and the executive bureaucracy are reported to be more influential over legislative outcomes in states where term limits are on the books than where they are not."

This result has been replicated multiple times. In one study, a post-term-limits respondent said that after term limits, "agencies [do] what they want to. [One bureaucrat told me] we were here when you got here, and we'll be here when you're gone." As the authors of this study note, "Legislative oversight is the venue of specialists. A term-limited legislature tends to be populated by generalists, who lack the accumulated knowledge to exercise oversight effectively, if they even recognize it as their responsibility."

Term limits also strengthen the power of lobbyists and interest groups for the same reason. In term-limited states, lawmakers and their staff have less time to build up expertise, since they are there for a limited time. But like the executive agencies of the state government, lobbyists and interest groups are also there year after year. They are the true repeat players building long-term relationships and the true keepers of the institutional knowledge. This gives them power.

It's a nice fantasy that what Washington needs is a bunch of good old-fashioned common sense — common sense that can only come from people who aren't "career politicians." But the machinery of government is now incredibly complex. And the more we cling to the fantasy of electing uncorrupted political neophytes as saviors, the more we empower the lobbyists and bureaucrats who can accumulate a lifetime of experience and knowledge.

This is why, for example, I've argued that the best way to reduce the influence of lobbyists in Washington is for Congress to invest in its long-term professional staffing capacity. The same logic applies if Congress wants to reassert its authority as the first branch.

As for the value of experience, it's worth noting that Trump's language about "draining the swamp" is exactly the same phrasing that former Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi used 10 years ago, back in 2006, when Democrats were poised to win back the House. At the time, Pelosi said she would "drain the swamp" and promised new rules to "break the link between lobbyists and legislation."

A career politician might have been experienced enough to remember that. A career politician might also have known that the reforms Democrats passed, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, actually did slow the revolving door. But as far anybody can tell, its minor tweaks to the revolving door did absolutely nothing to reduce the influence of lobbyists in Washington — again, because lobbyists' influence comes primarily from the fact that congressional staffers depend on lobbyists to make sense of policy.

Of course, experience should tell me that it's unlikely we will end the "drain the swamp" fantasy anytime and collectively embrace the necessity of political experience in effective policymaking. But here's hoping.

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