When President George Washington voluntarily gave up his office in 1797, the world was — and many of his fellow countrymen were — stunned. Following in the mold of the great Roman General Cincinnatus, Washington came out of retirement to serve his country, returning home as soon as he believed he had completed his mission. Cincinnatus and Washington both set a powerful example of public virtue by surrendering their holds on power, and there are certainly many politicians who ought to follow their lead.
General Cincinnatus and President Washington term-limited themselves and had the humility to know when it was time for another compatriot to pick up the baton. This does not mean that the two men did not have more of themselves to give to their countries — just the self-awareness to know that their causes were bigger than themselves. New leadership was needed in order for both the young Roman Republic and the young United States to be sustained in the long-term. However, different times and circumstances call for disparate solutions. Executive power is inherently distinct from legislative power, especially when the former is vested in one official elected by the entire country and the latter in 535 individuals elected by various constituencies. One man or woman should not be able to hold the presidency for more than two full terms (or the Constitutionally-provided ten years), because concentrated power corrupts; one man or woman should be able to hold a congressional or senatorial seat for as long as their constituents decide is enough, because competitive power — or, as James Madison called it in Federalist 51, “ambition… made to counteract ambition” — strengthens the institution and the nation.
The imposition of term limits on Members of Congress would mean the elimination of seniority, the transferral of institutional memory from elected representatives to unelected operatives, the expansion of the lobbying industry, and the stifling of voter choice. No longer would civic experience be a relevant factor in electing competent officeholders, governmental knowledge be a celebrated means of evaluating effective legislators, lobbyists be subservient to the needs of American constituents, nor voters be allowed to decide if their federal representatives are worthy of re-election. The message from proponents of congressional term limits to the American voter: If you like your Congressman, too bad.
Time and again, voters across the country have deposed leaders who were deemed ineffective representatives of their constituents. Names like Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), and David Perdue (R-Ga.) ring a bell, because in recent years they have been defeated in primaries or general elections, most of whom before term limits would have even kicked in. Politicians lose elections rather often, so it shouldn’t be difficult to believe that the ones who survive do so on their own merits.
Despite the noble intentions of its well-meaning proponents, the idea of imposing congressional term limits is at best a misguided one. While the problem of congressional corruption is real, the solution is not to create more dysfunction by way of term limits — and the GOP platform should be updated as such. Rather than term limits, the platform should call for reforms like removing cameras from the floor, a Constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget in normal times, and the democratization of the committee process (most of which were floated in some capacity by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebr.) in a September 2020 op-ed). Meaningful institutional reform can be achieved without putting a full-body cast on Congress for what amounts to a surface-level scrape on the knee.