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 is a senior Political Science major and Public Policy concentrator at Kenyon College. He is also the co-editor in chief of the Kenyon Observer, the school's student-run political journal. Jon worked as a field organizer for Tom Perriello in 2010 and recently returned to AMERICAblog from the Obama campaign, where he was a Deputy Regional Field Director based in Hampton, Virginia. He writes on a variety of topics but pays particularly close attention to elections, political psychology and the use of social media. Jon on Google+, and his .

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  • Common Sense

    I completely disagree. This country needs term limits in order to limit the reach of lobbyist groups. Also, as a way to remind politicians that being a congressman or senator is not a career but a public service. My response to what Reagan said, ” How come the president has a term limit then?”

  • htales

    I so agree with you, great article. So many ideas like term limits are done out of wanting to punish politicians rather than getting to limited government.

  • Roy

    I have talked to people who would like to see term limits cut down to one four year term, while others would like to see term limits set at two four year terms. And still others believe that these two scenarios would harm us because of removing the good politicians along with the bad ones. I would propose that maybe a maximum of two 4 year terms with a mandatory 4 year absence followed by another possible two 4 year terms, repeated as long as the voters allow. This would allow the good politicians to be brought back which allowing newbies a chance to prove themselves to the people.

  • Mrsexamme1965

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    We have, and will continue to have, the Congress we deserve, until
    fair-minded people work harder to overcome the power of the oligarchs
    and the theocons and all the other narrow groups seeking to conquer the
    country.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    Personally, we have two primary threats. One big one being redistricting. We have huge swaths of people who are completely unrepresented in their own districts, because the maps have been drawn in such a way to make sure that they are. Texas would be a clear swing state if Democratic voters actually had a say in the matter, and didn’t have their voting blocks carefully broken up to limit their power.

    The second is the revolving door between public and private. Which cash, people, and influence freely flows. It needs to be slammed shut. It is a complete joke that we have politicians that literally walk out of Congress one day, and the next day walk back in as a lobbyist.

    I don’t see term limits solving anything, and I think they should spend more time in DC, not less, and be absolutely required to be on the House floor when it is in session. I think they should have the same hours, vacation time, and sick leave as every other federal employee. As for salaries, Congress right now actually makes less (once you factor in for inflation) than they were making in the 50s, 60s and 70s. The big difference is the bribes. What could be cut down for cost is the cost of running each member’s office. Why does it take a million dollars a year to run the office of a Congressman? Why does it take two million to run the office of a Senator? Why does each Congressman get his own full staff. Does each Congressman really have so much going on that they each need a full time PR rep? Just seems like a lot of waste, which basically amounts to a make-work program for each member’s friends.

  • GlennBo

    Obama is far from perfect but in many cases it’s more a reflection of the Congress that he has to work with. Do you really think single-payer would get through? Obamacare DOES enable state-level experimentation. Vermont is in the process of implementing single-payer which may spread to the rest of the US when it’s finished. So will this work out in the end? Maybe exactly the way we hoped. No doubt, the people have not pushed Obama hard enough and he has a legion of apologists ready to dissemble and deflect.

    I agree with much of what you said. I am blessed with some of the best representatives one could ask for: Elizabeth Warren, Joe Kennedy, and soon Ed Markey. Yeah, they aren’t as accessible as they could be but I am aware of when they have office hours and I could get some face time if I ask for it.

    If you want to make something happen, you and your friends ought to take over the local Democratic party since the local offices determine the candidates that run for state and local offices. The other thing you can do it join a group like MoveToAmend which is working on the campaign finance issue, not just Citizens United. There are lots of opportunities to organize and make a difference.

    The onus is on us to change things. A group of us in my town are planning to take over the Democratic Town council since those in the council treat it like some kind of honorarium. My town and the towns around us are mostly Republican at this point and there’s no outreach and no organizing around turning the tide. This has to stop.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    At the very least, their investment income should be put into blind trust, so they can’t actively profit from insider knowledge… which they’ve all but admitted members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, do on a regular basis.

  • ArthurH

    All very good proposals, dula. Public funded election campaigns that cap expenditures would force candidates to run on their ideas as they wouldn’t have the cash from those tax exempt political action groups masquerading as social welfare organizations to flood the voters with ads portraying their opponents as 10-times worse than Satan. And one more thing. Who are the proponents of term limits who deny me my choice? If I like an office holder, I should be able to vote for him again no matter how long he’s been in office. If the other voters disagree, fine. I can live with the outcome. But don’t tell me I have to choose from two blank slates strictly because of some arbitrary time limit. It just ain’t American!

  • lynchie

    Greenhorns as compared to incumbents who already bought and paid for by corporations and the lobbyists write the various bills put up for adoption. I don’t care if the greenhorns know where to take a dump I want accountability and if there is not threat of being voted out there is none. Incumbents control the flow of money to elections, incumbents have a given track record of who and where to vote and lick the ass and hand that feeds them.

    Getting lobbyists and corporations out of politics will never happen, Congress will never want to turn off the tap of bribes, off shore money and nifty trips for them and their staff. We keep replacing the turds if they aren’t performing and some of the tide will turn. The thought that we get the brightest and best is a joke, Lieberman, Gomert, King, Cruz, West (though his ass is out) Backmann, etc. Let’s try some other talent in congress they can’t do any worse. Hell we continue to vote for the lesser of two evils

  • TheOriginalLiz

    First of all, no need for the condescending tone of your post.

    Secondly, a non-life long politician isn’t necessarily a “greenhorn”, plus, it may be the fact that the lifers know and work “the system” that is part of the problem.

  • nicho

    So you think it’s a good idea to have a Congress with a rotating cast of greenhorns, who don’t know how the system works, and probably don’t even know where the restrooms are, teamed up against well-heeled, very experienced lobbyists who know how everything works and are only too happy to “help out.” Recipe for disaster.

    What we need to do is get money out of politics and get rid of lobbyists. If we did that, then everything else would iron itself out.

  • ckg1

    Regarding #1: Term limits are the LAZY way out of this mess of career pols. The BETTER way is to have a better-informed, more engaged voting public that makes better choices at the ballot box.

  • lynchie

    Because the people who run for Congress are millionaires we the people are kept out of running. Congress was never met to be a lifetime job. Look at many who have been 20 and 30 years in office and never proposed a piece of legislation or voted outside party guidelines because that was safe. They don’t represent the wishes of their constituents (gun control) but the wishes of big corporations, banks and wall street. Have you tried to talk to your congressman lately. He holds no public meetings in our area, never returns phone calls, never answers email but he is quick on the job sending out requests for money. What we have is broken, maybe some of that is because too many people don’t care, aren’t involved. A lot has to do with the outright lying that goes on from OHighness on down. They campaign on one set of promises and do exactly the opposite so many people especially the young say “screw it” and don’t play the game. The same holds true for volunteering. I worked hard for O, sad to say he has done little to live up to his promises. You can throw Repubs into the mix but show me an issue that he really pushed congress for. Gun control, passed to Biden, Wall Street and the Banks–hired some of the worst, stopping the war– still waiting, increased domestic spying–hardly, killing Americans abroad–drones anyone, Gitmo–still going, Single Pay health plan–meets with drug and healthcare in private, Free Trade–new asia pact that is secret, Oil pipeline–you know the way that will come down, Jobs, Jobs, Jobs–doesn’t even talk about jobs, SS and Medicare–prepared to through the elderly and poor on the slag heap of the rich. So why would someone who listened to the mountains of empty words want to support the guy who ends up to only be the lesser of two evils by a whisker.

  • dula

    Publicly funded elections are the only way ordinary Americans will stand a chance to influence the voting in DC. Also, we need laws against going to work for a lobbyist after office. But seriously, at this point aren’t we just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?

  • GlennBo

    I agree that we should have more people participate. I disagree that term limits allows for that to happen. This isn’t about perfection vs incrementalism. We already have experience that term-limited state houses enable more corruption. If anything, it further empowers lobbyists who hold the keys to getting legislation passed.

  • johndesalvio

    How about allowing members of Congress and their spouses live ONLY on their salaries? Do not allow any money from corporations – aka bribes – at anytime while being members of Congress.

  • caphillprof

    The overriding problem with the Congress is extreme gerrymandering made possible by the advent of the computer and a renegade Supreme Court. The second problem with the Congress is that masses of people are underrepresented in the US Senate. The third problem with the Congress is the rise of a professional political class which is more easily held in thrall to the big money boys.

    Short term limits are perhaps a bad idea, but I wouldn’t object to a 20 or 30 year limit on cumulative political service. [I also believe there should be lifetime limits on how much money any one person may receive from the federal government regardless of the purpose.]

  • TheOriginalLiz

    Valid concerns. But I don’t think that being unable to guarantee perfection right off the bat is a reason to not do something. I realize it is the approach we’re taking with gun legislation, but I just don’t think it’s a good way to go. I believe we would have a better chance of benefiting from the full spectrum of america if we let more people participate.

  • GlennBo

    Your supposition is that there would be change in Congress if there were term limits. You may be right but the change would likely be for the worse for the reasons stated above. If you like the idea of ALEC writing all of the legislation, then you’ll love term limits since that’s what happens in states where they have term limits on the state level.

    How do you guarantee that new representatives will represent the american people? How do you codify the “genuine sampling”? What’s likely to happen, until we get money out of politics, is that we’ll get representatives who represent big money and not the people.

  • GlennBo

    I agree with all that was said above. All of those proposals are bad ideas despite how they have wormed their way into the public psyche. The biggest threats to our democracy are the apathy of the general public and the siloing of our news sources.

    Democracy is a participatory sport and no one thinks they have time for it. In my many weekends of canvassing I hear the same thing said over and over: “we’ll vote but we don’t have time for anything else”.

    Regarding news, we consume completely separate media outlets so our experiences are quite different. There’s no way to agree on the facts when many outlets are merely propaganda or avoid stories that don’t play to their narratives.

  • TheOriginalLiz

    I totally disagree on term limits – I believe they are a necessity if there is to be any change in congress and certainly if we ever expect our legislative branch to actually represent the country. The argument given is self-serving and invalid – All aristocracies have “good” despots as well as bad; they are still aristocracies. If congress is to actually represent the american people, it needs to be made up of a genuine sampling of the american people, not just the same inbred clique over and over again ad infinitum.

  • Bill_Perdue

    The problem is not the Supremes, the WH and Congress, it goes much deeper than that. The government is infested with criminals in the pay of the looter class.

    Congress and the Constitution are tools of the rich and should be replaced by democratic institutions hostile to the rich and supportive of workers and consumers.

    The Constitution needs to be updated to constitutional amendments guaranteeing socialized
    medicine, quality housing, nutrition and trade union levels of pay and benefits for workers, students, retirees, job trainees and the unemployed and an amendment renouncing aggression against other countries and making it a capital crime to lie and plot to begin wars of aggression.

  • S1AMER

    The problem with Congress — however any person defines the problem at any given time — it not within the halls of Congress. The problem with Congress is in every damned voting booth in America, and in the hearts and minds of voters, and in the absent votes of people who decline their duty to vote or are blocked from voting by restrictive laws.

    Put another way, we made Congress by electing the people who serve there at any given time. But, you say, I voted for the good guy! Okay, but did you do your utmost to persuade other people to vote similarly? Did you offer a ride to the polls to the old lady down the street? Did you contribute to your good guy? Did you work to expand voting rights and ease of access to the ballot in your state? Did you do all these things, and more? Huh?

    If you’re old enough to remember Walt Kelly’s comic strip “Pogo,” you might recall a frequent refrain in the strip as a commentary on why things are wrong, and who is responsible: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” That was true whether you were talking about the Vietnam War and racism and poverty in the Sixties, and it’s true when you’re talking about everything wrong in America today, including Congressional malfeasance and nonfeasance. We have, and will continue to have, the Congress we deserve, until fair-minded people work harder to overcome the power of the oligarchs and the theocons and all the other narrow groups seeking to conquer the country.

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