Term Limits: A Solution to Congressional Gridlock, Lobbyists, and Voter Indifference to Elections?

In the United States, the average age of a legislator in Congress is fifty-nine. [1] This is problematic, as young people are impacted by the legislative decisions made by politicians nearly thrice their age. Elderly politicians have been successful in their long political tenure because of the incumbency advantage. One benefit to the incumbency is the relationship between political parties and incumbents, where the legislator pledges support for the party’s platform in exchange for donations or endorsements. The incumbency advantage points may be partially eliminated by imposing term limits. Term limits can also enable Congress to be more representative of the electorate and diverse than it currently stands.


The act of introducing fresh faces to a project is not revolutionary. In fact, it is a technique used in nearly every field to revitalize a previously stalled project. When a business in the private sector cannot solve a problem, they hire a consulting firm to lend them new perspectives on their operations. When a doctor cannot come to a diagnosis for their patient, they recruit a colleague as a fresh set of eyes to see if they have any new ideas. In many ways, this idea can be applied to how we think about elected representation in government.

According to the United States Constitution, a president is permitted two four-year terms in office. Forcing the electorate to choose a new person for the position means there is a greater chance that a new President will make changes, hopefully for the better. This forced turnover allows the executive branch to introduce a new set of eyes to analyze problems facing America in at least every eight years.

Congress, however, faces no such limits on the time that a legislator can serve in office. Without a forced turnover and the many advantages conferred upon incumbents challengers are almost certain to lose in an election. The most recent and direct case that addresses this is US Term Limits V. Thornton (1995) in which the Supreme Court declared that states instituting term limits on their Congressional representatives functionally acted to change the constitutionally prescribed requirements to be a Congressional representative, which states are not permitted to do any more than they are permitted to change citizenship requirements. [2] While that ruling meant that Congressional term limits on the state level for federal office are unconstitutional, that does not necessarily mean they would be harmful to America or the principles that it represents. The founding fathers at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 decided that counting enslaved persons as three-fifths of a person in the population-based apportionment of Congressional seats was the “constitutional” way to conduct votes. [3] By doing so, the founding fathers used the growing slave population to their advantage by counting them in the population of the state thus giving the state more power, while also ensuring that slaves were not considered people and guaranteed rights. While the present-day United States recognizes this error, citizens should open their eyes to the distinct possibility of overlooked wrongdoings in underpinning documents and ideas which governs their country. America is not a country that is bound by a set of laws but rather the idea to promote “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” for all that may reside within its borders, and sometimes the laws need to change in order to more effectively address the core principles.

Imposing term limits may help alleviate some of the gridlock in Congress, loosen the grip of lobbyists, and encourage Americans to be more attuned to the election process, which altogether will work to make the political system more representative and responsive to the voice of the American people.


Lawrence Jackson/WhiteHouse.Gov

Gridlock in groups of people or organizations happens when ideological differences lead to indecision. In Congress, gridlock presents a lack of bipartisanship or cross-isle cooperation which results in low efficiency and/or effectiveness of government. Though gridlock in our government is not new, it is one of the top complaints of voters when asked about their reasons for disapproval of Congress. [4] Modern-day gridlock is a combination of deep party-line tensions and Congressional fear of making waves that could cost them their seat in the next election. Gridlock in Congress can affect everything from keeping the government-funded to addressing issues of national importance. When gridlock gets in the way of what the electorate wants, it creates apathy and mistrust of those charged with leading the country. Gridlock can take on many forms, but none of them fruitful for the governing body, whose duty it is to work for the American people.

The 115th Congress had the highest level of bipartisanship when compared to the past twenty years of Congress in which 68 percent of all enacted bills received bipartisan support. [5] This supposed increase in cooperation across the aisle might indicate that despite seeing very little turnover in representatives, Congress can still function. In reality, however, this was not the case. The vast majority of the bills passed were procedural in nature which mostly sought to “rename buildings, award medals, designate special days”, and other non-substantive changes to government policy. [6] In total, only three percent of all bills introduced were passed and six percent of which were voted upon. [7] In a divided congress, we would either witness a larger number of votes on bills or have fewer bills introduced because there would be less ‘positioning’ for the next election on how bills are treated by the party with control of the Senate or House. Limiting the number of times representatives can run for Congress could work to motivate them to work on bills that might actually get passed. Increased cooperation in Congress would benefit the American people by reducing bipartisanship in the government and increasing the likelihood of Congress passing legislation that would enact substantive change.

It should then be no surprise that Congress had the highest level of cross-aisle cooperation without much being accomplished. This redners the legislative session ‘cooperative’ in the sense that bills were passed with the support of both parties but failed to truly demonstrate what a group committed to working together looks like. Despite passing a few important pieces of legislation such as the notable and contended Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, making significant changes to the tax code, and the Department of Defense and Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Act of 2019, addressing the opioid crisis through providing funding, Congress still falls short of operating to its full potential. If the members of Congress knew that their ability to govern in their current position was limited to a set number of terms, it may push them to be more willing to collaborate on bipartisan legislation, increasing the number of introduced bills that would likely get a vote, and hopefully producing better outcomes for the American people.

If term limits were instituted where each representative is only allowed a set of terms that they can hold a position for, then representatives who want a favorable portrait in history would be less likely to spend their time with partisan politics. When representatives leave D.C., they would be thrust back into the communities that they represented. Their accomplishments and failures would be known by their community, giving them a higher incentive to work tirelessly and compromise during their time in office. Pushing elected representatives back into their communities after serving their limited number of terms makes governing personal and takes away the theatrical nature that often characterizes politics in the media.


House of Cards, Media Rights Capital

In American politics, while voters elect representatives to vote on bills, it does not require a representative to be an expert in any given policy area. Thus, lobbyists are hired by politicians or political organizations who hope to persuade people with political power to represent their best interests. Interests represented by lobbyists can range from special treatment of building depreciation for tax purposes or expanding drilling rights in the Alaskan tundra. [8] Though lobbyists might have a unpleasant reputation for operating in the shadows or contributing to the corruption in Washington, their existence or participation in the governing process is not inherently harmful. One main criticism of lobbyists is that their persuasion efforts may have a significant impact on a policy that far outweighs the interest of their client when compared to the impact that policy has on the broader electorate. In response, attempts have been made by Congress to limit their power and the tools lobbyists have to influence government officials. [9]

There are 11,265 lobbyists registered in Washington D.C. whose sole job is to influence the votes of the elected representatives of American voters. [10] This equates to 21 lobbyists for each Congressional representative, demonstrating how pervasive the lobbying industry has become in the nation’s capital and power center for American politics. While the mere presence of large numbers of lobbyists is not powerful, the imbalance of power when it comes to elections or information is the center of their toolkits of influence.

There are laws that limit activities of lobbyists such as the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (LDA), which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton to increase the transparency of governing and work to protect the rights of “ordinary” Americans when it came to having their interests represented by their government. [11] Introduced as an inducement to make companies and powerful interest groups re-evaluate their involvement in policy, it, instead, turned lobbying into an industry with high costs of entry through extensive filings and stringent regulations with harsh penalties. [12] The LDA warrants the registration of persons regularly engaged in lobbying government officials and requires quarterly reports from registered lobbyists detailing who they gave money to, who funded their activities, as well as other conflicts of interest that may arise after a former government worker becomes a lobbyist. [13] This law also details what type of gifts may be legally given to Congressional representatives or their staff to avoid undue influence on the outcomes of governing. The law, while a good starting point for legislating the effect special interest groups can have on those charged with representing the electorate, creates ‘shadow’ lobbyists who engage in the same activities as their registered counterparts, but due to not meeting the threshold for registering, are effectively operating in the shadows. While the rules limiting the types of inducements allowed may still apply to these ‘shadow lobbyists’, they are not required to submit quarterly reports, making enforcement action against those who transgress the law almost impossible. [14]

Lobbyists are not only influential due to their generous donations to political campaigns, but they also serve as the main source of Congressional education about new issues facing the nation. By way of illustration, a marijuana legalization lobbyist who wants a senator to vote for a bill that would legalize the sale and consumption of marijuana by amending the Controlled Substances Act of 1971, which placed marijuana as a schedule I substance. [15] This is the situation of Neal Levine, a marijuana legalization lobbyist employed by the Cannabis Trade Federation (CTF) to represent the interest of the cannabis industry in Washington D.C. [16] This proposed law would stand to take the authority away from federal law enforcement agencies for the prosecution of marijuana-related crimes. Levine discusses some of the things he will present to government officials during meetings. He might show the official studies that depict the drug as being a harmless substance that can actually have health benefits, such as controlling nausea or anxiety. He might present CTF funded studies showing that decriminalizing the drug would help stop the growing federal prison population, which would help slow the exponential growth of prison budgets within the share of the total federal budget. Finally, Levine might appeal to the humanity of the official by showing how the law has torn apart families just for engaging in a few hours of harmless euphoria and calm. Should these arguments fail to work, Levine still has the final enticement, which is to ask the senator to support the bill in return for campaign donations. Of course, laws prohibit him from directly saying that due to its status as a quid pro quo (this for that) transaction, but he might suggest that money might flow to their opponent in the next election should the senator not support the bill. This is the job lobbyists are sent to congress to perform; talking to representatives and trying to get them to vote how their clients want them to. The senator is faced with a problem: does he support the bill and secure some campaign donations to help him continue to work in Congress, or does he vote his conscience even if that means voting against the bill? The story of Levine is not uncommon. Lobbyists spend their days (or are hired by interest groups) at Capitol Hill trying to convince/sway the opinions and votes of representatives, without the knowledge of voters.

This is the control that lobbyists have over the legislators in Congress, and it is evident in every piece of legislation that gets passed. Term limits would take the final enticement of the lobbyists, which arguably is the most offensive to public policy and least “ethical” of the bunch. They would allow members to be educated by the lobbyist without worrying about how money might flow as a result of their vote. If Congressional representatives do not have to stress over keeping their seats for life in two-year or six-year blocks, then they can focus on voting their conscience.

Instituting term limits in Congress would not remove all the power from lobbyists, but it would effectively reduce some of the more unpalatable sides to Congressional lobbying by limiting its carrot-and-stick style influence on Congressional decisions.


Bryan Woolston, Reuters

The United States chooses its leaders on all American political subdivisions using elections, meaning that the electorate must be actively involved and educated for the system to work as it was truly intended. Without voters using their constitutionally protected right to have their opinion registered at the polls, it becomes much less likely that there would be a harmonious representation in those elected to advocate for their interests. Rather, an election in which a portion of the voting population does not vote becomes skewed towards overrepresented groups who did exercise their right to vote. The disconnect between eligible voting groups and the voting electorate leads to dissatisfaction with the election winners, which further contributes to political division and distrust of the political leaders by those who did not vote.

This system of electing representatives was intended to give citizens a direct choice in how they wanted their government to behave and the policies they wanted to see enacted by them but also blunted some of the short-term thinking that characterizes the populist mob mentality. [17] Instead of allowing citizens to vote directly on the issues, the founding fathers created a system in which the electorate votes on representatives to decide those issues for us, which, according to Dr. Bernard Bobski, avoids dramatic and short-sighted decisions by the electorate. [18] While this system of attempting to seek compromise and not make dramatic changes to government policy without weighing the risks and benefits does not always work, it has been hailed as the form of government least subject to swift policy swings. [19] There may be times when swift action is required such as a pandemic or financial crisis, but the slow steady march of representative democracy speeds up for none.

Presidential elections receive the most attention from voters due to their nationwide scope, the novelty of the candidates running, and the media attention their campaigns receive. From 2000 to 2016, turnout has been on average 41.5 percent, with 2016 being the highest of the 21st century thus far. [20] The rates of voter turnout are even worse for midterm elections, rarely reaching forty percent. [21] This low turnout only serves to increase the growing sentiment of voters that their government is not representative of them and does not look out for their interests.

In contrast, the United States has weak voter turnout when stacked up against other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations. Turkey, for example, has the highest turnout rate among OECD nations clocking in at 89 percent with Sweden close behind at 82 percent. [22] Some of these differences among nations’ turnout rates can be attributed to compulsory voting laws, though the maximum penalty of spending time in jail is seldom used, it serves as a reminder to the electorate that it is their duty to vote. These laws have shown to be effective in increasing voter turnout by 18 percent, remarkably higher than it would be without the legal and financial incentive. [23]

Low turnout rates, especially for midterm elections which include local and Congressional elections, make it easier for incumbents to be reelected, simply by name recognition or lack of voter participation. However, without the necessary research and education of voters on how that candidate aligns with their interests, it is a blind vote.

If a Congressional representative was term-limited, voters would not be able to rely on the name recognition power of an incumbent to decide who to vote for. Instead, voters are left with a few options to help them decide how to vote such as party affiliation or research into the candidates’ stances on issues the voter cares about.

Therefore, in order to maintain better engaged citizens, there needs to be a maximum term for any single legislator, limiting the amount of power they can wield and opening the seat up for more constituents to have a chance to make decisions.