Why congressional terms limits and pay freezes are a really bad idea

As a journalist, it’s almost too easy to churn out articles highlighting how dysfunctional Congress is. Our legislative branch seems to have forgotten its 8th grade civics class, unable to fulfill the most basic of tasks: turning bills into laws while being responsive to the needs of the American people.

So the topic invariably turns to “reforming Congress.” Some proposals, including changing the filibusteranonymous hold, campaign finance and redistricting processes, would go a long way toward improving compromise and competence in our legislature. Others, while perhaps equally popular, would only make things worse.

Let’s look at a few of the big ones:

1. Adopting term limits

In a letter published on conservative blog RedState last month, Congressman Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) and Congressman Beto O’Roarke (D-TX) advocated a constitutional amendment giving Congress the authority to impose term limits on itself, citing overwhelming public support for the idea.

The argument goes that if Congress members no longer have to worry about re-election, they will make tough choices and vote their conscience, unencumbered by special interests and deep-pocketed lobbyists.

But implementing term limits will only hamper the influence of one special interest: the voters. Ronald Reagan himself said that term limits are “a preemption of the people’s right to vote for whomever they want as many times as they want.” As Pat Cunningham writes:

[Term limits] would eliminate the good politicians along with the bad. They would enhance the power of bureaucrats, staffers and lobbyists. They would result in a costly loss of knowledge and experience in government.

Institutional memory is crucial in Congress. Why would we want to throw everyone out just when they were starting to find their footing and get the hang of the legislative process?

Moreover, without being held accountable to the voters, and with the knowledge that their job has a definitive end-date, new members of Congress would spend their time locking down their next gig instead of their next election.

Not to mention, look at how ideological some members of Congress, most notably on the right, are of late. Can you imagine what future Michele Bachmann’s would be like if they didn’t have an election to worry about?

And finally, would we really have wanted a Ted Kennedy or Paul Wellstone to have left the Senate earlier?

Rather than providing an incentive for members to be accountable to their constituents, term limits would make Congress members accountable to whoever promised them the best (and in many cases highest-paying) job when their term expired.

2. Lowering/Freezing congressional pay

With so much talk about the national debt and the need for ordinary Americans to make sacrifices, by way of decreased government services and increased taxes, it’s easy to cite Congress’ $174,000 (plus generous benefits) yearly salary as a prime example of Washington decadence.

Why should my discretionary income be lowered if the clowns on Capitol Hill can’t even pass a working budget? Others, including many members of Congress themselves, have proposed tying congressional pay to policy outcomes, with proposals for withholding pay in times of budget deficits or failures to pass basic legislation.

An April Gallup poll showed that 79% of Americans want Congress to give back a quarter of its salary.

Setting aside for the moment the fact that tying congressional pay to policy outcomes would violate the 27th Amendment, which states that changes in pay for Senators or House members cannot take effect until after the next election cycle, paying Congress less will only serve as a barrier to entry for the very people we want running for Congress: ordinary Americans.

The average US congressman has a net worth upwards of $6.5 million dollars; the average Senator is worth nearly $12 million. Almost nobody runs for Congress for the money – they’re independently wealthy before they seek office. Moreover, for would-be candidates who aren’t independently wealthy, $174,000 is often barely enough to cover the living and travel costs that come with being in Congress, as maintaining a residence in two places – quite expensive Washington, DC, and their home district – and travelling between them frequently, is expensive.

Congress via Shutterstock

Congress via Shutterstock

Current levels of congressional pay are not high enough to compete with the private sector, where potential members of Congress are valued at much higher levels. And it’s showing: In gearing up for the 2014 midterms, the parties are finding it difficult to recruit qualified candidates to run for competitive seats. We’ve also already seen members choose not to run for re-election in favor of taking lucrative private sector jobs.  And while I certainly wasn’t sad to see Jim DeMint go, the Center for Responsive Politics estimated that his net worth was roughly $16,001 before leaving the Senate in favor of a much more lucrative position at the Heritage Foundation.

In his 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney popularized his father’s advice to “never get involved in politics if you have to win election to pay a mortgage.” While in theory wealthy candidates have the financial independence necessary to govern without needing to sell out, in practice it usually means that they have already sold out.

If we want ordinary Americans, the kind who aren’t already worth millions of dollars, to run for Congress, then we have to make the position attractive (aka affordable) to ordinary Americans.

3. Spending less time in DC

In a recent article in Business Insider, James Altucher advocated a reform that would prohibit members of Congress from voting on legislation while they are physically in Washington D.C.:

The only reason they vote there is because there were no phone lines or Internet in 1792. But now Congressmen could stay in their district, help people out, and still engage in debates and learn the issues and vote from home.

Here’s the problem: Congress votes on legislation in Washington D.C. because it drafts, debates and compromises on legislation in Washington D.C. Take representatives out of Washington and you take away any hope of deals being struck, as members can simply hole up in their home district and insist that they are acting in the best interest of their constituents by refusing to give up anything that they want, even if the country as a whole suffers.

If we want Congress to be a body based on compromise and consensus, with members advocating for the wishes of their constituents while respecting those of other districts’ voters, we have to get Senators and House members to talk to each other more, not less. The halls of Congress used to be a place for collaboration and partnership; this is no longer the case. ProPublica has a great explanation as to why:

In the 1980s, [Tennessee Democrat Jim] Cooper argues, most members of Congress lived in Washington with their families and socialized with each other across party lines. Hotly contested campaigns cost only a few hundred thousand dollars, and political parties did not expect that politicians would make donations to their colleagues.

Cooper blames former House Majority Leader and current presidential candidate Newt Gingrich for changing this restrained culture.

“Gingrich ordered freshman Republicans not to move their families to Washington, D.C., because he thought they needed to campaign full-time at home,” Cooper wrote. “Soon everyone belonged to the Tuesday–Thursday Club. Members became strangers, the easier for them to fight.”

When Congress members moved their families to Washington their kids went to school together and their spouses socialized with one another, leading members to spend more time together and become friends.

While Gingrich’s instruction for the incoming class of 1994 to spend more time in their districts could be seen as a genuine effort to allow them to be more responsive to their constituents, it also cut members off from one another and made it easier for them to attack each other. If we want to see compromise legislation emerge from Capitol Hill, our representatives need to be spending more time there, not less.

We all want Congress to function more smoothly, and there are a lot of ideas out there about how to make that happen. But those seeking reform need to be careful not to do more harm than good. many of the popular “fixes” may end up backfiring.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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