If you thought term limits at the national level were dead, you were wrong. In an isolated ward of the U.S. Congress they are alive but their condition is critical.
In fact, some members of Congress are working hard to kill term limits that apply to them.
Playing out on Capitol Hill is a subtle demonstration of how many of our elected representatives regard political principle as mere rhetorical window dressing to be conveniently hung up during a campaign, and then put back into the legislative drawer, if and when campaign promises come face to face with professional self-interest.
A group of Republican senators is now pushing to repeal a provision in the Senate rules that limits the length of time a senator can occupy the chairmanship of a committee or serve as a ranking member. (The rule was put into effect amidst much fanfare in 1996 by the "Contract with America"-inspired GOP majority.) The rule states that, "A senator shall serve no more than six years as chair and six years as ranking member of any standing committee."
The rule's intent was to limit service to a total of six years, enabling chairmen and ranking members to leverage their seniority to claim the top spot on a different committee. In practice, this would allow many of the most senior Republicans to assume control of new committees in 2003 if the GOP regains a Senate majority in November.
But most members of the GOP caucus, privately relieved that their own Senate seats were never subjected to term limits, are likely to support the move led by Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., to repeal the current limit. Reasons vary as to why some senior Republicans are backing repeal of the term limits rule. Some are quite candid.
"I just don't like the rule," states Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., the ranking GOP member on the Environment and Public Works committee. After all, "We have the right as senators to elect the chairmen any time," adds Smith.
Other opponents of term limits predictably emphasize the alleged benefits stemming from the leadership of "experienced legislators." Hence Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, sounds like an anti-term limits political scientist when he says, "I don't think it's as good for the U.S. Senate as people thought when they proposed it. This place deserves both the energy of new members and the experience of old members."
Critics always predict a significant rise in the influence of the remaining tenured political actors, especially legislative and bureaucratic staffers, who will run institutional rings around the rookie legislators. But the evidence on the institutional impact of term limits at the state level contradicts the critics, including the apparently growing ranks of careerist senators, who prefer Capitol Hill the way it used to be.
After all, the critics' claim that the committee and legislative processes take many years to master is less an indictment of inexperienced legislators than of the legislative process. The bottom line is that the workings of our legislatures are far more complex than is necessary. Arguably, many of the already term-limited states are better off without some of this vaunted experience. Remember that legislatures aren't the only place to gain useful experience. The private-sector experience that many newcomers bring to term-limited legislative committees may prove more valuable for the general welfare.
Clearly, political experience is no guarantor of staff-free effective legislating. In non-term limited professional legislatures most legislation is in fact written by staff members, not by the politicians themselves. In practice, the more senior the legislator, the more dependent he is likely to be on the staff.
But committee-based term limits eliminate the possibility of entrenched legislative leaders dominating the Senate chamber. As a consequence, changes are occurring on the traditional Senate leadership career path. But the pace of change should be quickened, not slowed down.
For example, the term-limited Arkansas legislature was bolder than most of its peers and simply abolished the seniority system for selecting committee chairs. Committee chairs are now selected from the legislative floor. Under a more merit-based approach to committee assignments, political philosophy is now as important as personal loyalty.
The direction of the debate surrounding term-limited committee chairmanships may sound like a classic inside-the-Beltway squabble, but more is at stake. First, it shows our elected representatives' preference for careerist self-advancement over political principle. Second, only months from polling day, it serves as another timely reminder about promises made and promises kept.
Patrick Basham is a senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.