Politics & Policy

The Case for Congressional Term Limits

James Madison by John Vanderlyn (White House Historical Association)
They would motivate members to defend Congress’s powers against executive encroachment.

“The legislative department is everywhere . . . drawing all power into its impetuous vortex.”

— James Madison, Federalist 48

Unfortunately, Congress’s vortex now spins the other way, throwing off powers that the executive scoops up. Hence this autumn’s spectacle: Feverish House and Senate candidates waging ferocious campaigns to win or retain offices that are of rapidly diminishing significance.

It is official: America “is at war.” We know this because the president’s press secretary says so. Congress has not said so, but many members say that the Islamic State must be countered and that they may have more to say about this in a few months.

Writing at the Federalist website, David Corbin and Matthew Parks, professors of politics at the King’s College in New York, say the Constitution’s distribution of powers is normative: The nation should go to war in four steps.

The president should present to Congress the case for war. The House, structurally the government’s most democratic institution (short terms, small constituencies), should express itself. The Senate, whose powers (to approve treaties and confirm ambassadors) give it special pertinence to foreign policy, and whose structure (six-year terms) is supposed to encourage sober deliberation, should speak. Then the president, through relevant civilian and military officials, executes the approved policy.

What has actually happened since Barack Obama’s September 10 address to the nation has been, Corbin and Parks argue, “a parody” of propriety. In his address about the Islamic State (which did not mention Khorasan, the asserted imminent threat that supposedly justified acting without Congress), Obama spoke to the public, not to the public’s institutional embodiment, Congress, whose support he said would be “welcome,” implying that it is unnecessary. Next, the administration argued with itself about what it was that Obama was going to do without congressional approval. (This was before his press secretary identified it as war.) Then the House tacked onto a spending bill its approval of arming certain Syrians (the “vetted” moderates?) and dispersed. The Senate, having added its approval without discernible deliberation, also skedaddled.

Obama is demonstrating in foreign policy what he has redundantly demonstrated in domestic policy — that a supine Congress is superfluous to governance. Which makes this autumn surreal: Why are so many people so eager to serve in a negligible Congress? Professor Greg Weiner of Assumption College suggests an answer:

“Aristotle teaches that no one becomes a tyrant to get in out of the cold; in contemporary terms, no one runs for president for the upmarket house and the jet airplane. But increasingly, there is evidence that members of Congress do seek office for something other than the power, for power is something with which they are not merely willing but often eager to part.”

This reinforces Congress’s self-marginalization: Congress increasingly attracts people uninterested in reversing its institutional anemia. They are undeterred by — perhaps are attracted by — the fact that they will not be responsible for important decisions such as taking the nation into war. As Congress becomes more trivial, its membership becomes less serious. It has an ever-higher portion of people who are eager to make increasingly strenuous exertions to hold offices that are decreasingly consequential. To solve the braided problems of “a proconsular presidency or a quietistic Congress,” Weiner advocates congressional term limits:

Supposedly, “members of Congress who serve longer are more competent, confident and therefore likelier to stand up to the president.” But “something has gone wrong with Federalist 51’s assumption that members of Congress seek office for power and not perquisites. . . . The privileges of permanent service too gravely swell the stakes of staying” and “supply reasons for serving other than exercising power. . . . Members of Congress who serve for brief periods will have . . . every political reason for taking up the power available to them while they can. . . . Members so situated will be likelier to defend their branch as a branch.”

In Federalist 51, Madison argued that the way to protect against a dangerous concentration of powers in one branch — today, the executive — is to give to persons in each branch the “constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others.” So, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”

Term limits are Madisonian measures, altering the incentives — the “interests” or “personal motives” — for entering and using public office. Term limits can define a conservative agenda of taming executive power by enhancing the power of Congress.

— George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. © 2014 The Washington Post

George Will — George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. His email address is georgewill@washpost.com. © 2018 Washington Post Writers Group.

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