Regardless of the winners on Nov. 6, there will still be 100 senators and 435 members of the House of Representatives – and for a large majority of them, this will not be their first term. Sky-high incumbency re-election rates in the United States Congress have caused some to question the need for term limits on representatives and senators. These protests miss the point: The problem isn’t necessarily the institutional structure; rather, the voting electorate poses a significant issue.
First, the numbers: Re-election for incumbents in the House typically hovers around 90 percent, only dipping below that twice in the past 20 years, when the figure was 88 percent in 1992 and 85 percent in 2010.
Senate incumbents have slightly lower re-election rates, but still they rarely fall below 80 percent. It did so, again, only twice since 1992: in 2000 and 2006 the figure was 79 percent.
Average career length in Congress has dramatically risen since the founding of our nation. For the 112th Congress, which convened in January 2011, the average length of tenure was 9.8 years for the House and 11.4 for the Senate. Some members have careers that span decades and the terms of numerous presidents.
Our congressional representatives have become “career politicians,” regarding the position as a personal occupation rather than as a delegate of a specific constituency. Perhaps term limits for Congress members will prevent domination of the U.S. government by a handful of individuals for years on end.
The emergence of career politicians isn’t arguable – the numbers are there. But why is this necessarily a problem? Why is public service the only position where being a “professional” is a negative quality? Legislation is technically complex; the ability to make deals in Congress and push policy through requires a high degree of political savvy. Shouldn’t it be preferable to have individuals well versed in legislation serving as our representatives?
Term limits aren’t the solution they appear to be. By eliminating the need for re-election, you eliminate the need for members of Congress to be responsive to their constituencies during their final term – they have nothing to lose. With the continued prospect of re-election, if members wish to keep their jobs, they must adequately serve their districts. Term limits are, essentially, already in place; if a district believes its representative is no longer serving their needs, then it has the ability to deny the incumbent re-election.
There is the argument that even without term limits, accurate representation is insufficient; well, that would be a failure of the electorate, not their representatives. It’s misguided to blame Congress members for their continued re-election when it is the voters who have the opportunity – every two years for the House and every six for the Senate – to vote out their current representatives if they are dissatisfied.
But they don’t. The over 80 and 90 percent re-election rates are evidence of that. Is it because 80 percent of senators and 90 percent of representatives are serving their constituencies well enough, better than a possible alternative? Probably not.
Rather, it is likely the voters are politically apathetic or unknowledgeable and simply vote for the name they are familiar with. Term limits won’t change that. It will simply change the name on the ballot; voter interest and knowledge will remain static.
Congressional term limits don’t address this underlying issue. It is no one’s fault but the voters of a district if an insufficient representative is continually re-elected. It would be irresponsible to blame anyone else.