Sorry, Tom Steyer, Term Limits Don’t Work

Sorry, Tom Steyer, Term Limits Don’t Work


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Janet Ybarra
Former Washington Journalist
Contributor on The Bipartisan Press

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Billionaire Tom Steyer, in his run for the Democratic presidential nomination, has been running tens of millions of dollars worth of advertising.

One of the ads which has run most often lately is called “Too Bad,” in which Steyer says that if Americans want universal healthcare, solutions for climate change and a fair economy, we must embrace term limits for members of Congress, to prevent service in Congress from being “a lifetime appointment” and presumably take back power from these congressional lifers.

Sorry, Mr. Steyer. You have it all wrong.

First of all, before Steyer, do you know who made congressional term limits a central issue? Republicans. Republicans were pushing term limits full tilt in the very early 90s. They had been the permanent minority party in the House for 40 years at that time, and they didn’t see any other way of ever gaining a majority again except by term limiting the incumbent Democrats.

Then came Newt Gingrich, his Republican Revolution, the 1994 takeover of Congress, and suddenly after that when you mentioned term limits to Republicans, all you heard were crickets.

But big, “wave” elections make up the first reason that Steyer is wrong about term limits. Service to Congress is not an appointment. It’s very much an election, and the big elections of 1994, 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2018 very much demonstrate that if voters bother to show up to the polls, they certainly can replace those who represent them.

There are a number of other reasons why legislative term limits are a lousy idea.

“Term limits are the surest way to weaken the legislative branch and empower the executive branch. Term limits are also a great way to empower special interests and lobbyists,” Lee Drutman wrote in Vox, citing studies of the effects of term limits in the states where they were enacted. “Basically, what term limits do is shift power toward those who are there for the long haul.

Drutman isn’t the only one to argue against term limits.

Opening with this 1788 quote from Roger Sherman, “Nothing renders government more unstable than a frequent change of the persons that administer it,” the respected Brookings Institution in Washington DC published “Five reasons to oppose congressional term limits.”

The real crisis facing our democracy isn’t the length of a lawmaker’s career, it’s the literally untold billions of dollars–much of it in “dark,” unreported money–from corporations and the super rich can buy access and influence in the government. Access and influence that you and I, often sadly, can no longer hope to match.

This is a direct result of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and its striking away at so much campaign finance law.

That’s the battle we ought to be fighting. But as one of the super rich, perhaps Mr. Steyer is too close to the problem to see it.

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