Editorial: Term limits would worsen Congress

The Detroit News

In outlining his plans for America last weekend in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Donald Trump drew some of the biggest cheers when he promised to push for a constitutional amendment limiting the terms of members of Congress. It fit well into his populist embrace of positions that stir the people, but lack a practical path to enactment.

Term limits for Congress aren’t going to happen, even if the Republican nominee gets elected. There are simply too many hurdles. And experience in the Michigan statehouse demonstrates it’s a really awful idea.

The biggest barrier is a 1995 Supreme Court ruling that declared state-imposed term limits on federal offices to be unconstitutional.

So that leaves a constitutional amendment as the only means of adopting congressional term limits. Good luck with that.

Amending the Constitution as Trump proposes requires a two-thirds vote of both chambers of Congress, and then approval by three-fourths of the states. That’s happened only 27 times since the document was approved in 1788. It seems highly unlikely that members of Congress would make the 28th time the infringement of their own livelihood.

The other way to amend the Constitution is through a convention called by two thirds of the state legislatures. That’s never been done.

Trump is pushing a never-gonna-happen idea, and a bad one at that.

Michigan is a perfect example of the folly of term limits. State voters amended the Constitution in 1992 to restrict House members to three, two-year terms and senators to two, four-year terms. The desire was for a Legislature made up of non-career politicians who would briefly lend their expertise to the people and then return to private life.

The reality has been an increasingly young and inept body of lawmakers who are elected to one office only to start angling for the next one.

Pogo-sticking politicians leap from the House to the Senate, and vice versa, or into other offices at the local level. Or they leave office to take up a career lobbying their former colleagues.

What’s been lost in Michigan are experienced legislators who stay around long enough to become expert in both governing and the issues facing the state. And who are able to build relationships with each other that make cooperative governing possible.

Lobbyists and staffers are now the keeper of the knowledge in Lansing — and of the power. Many lawmakers have only a passing knowledge of the state constitution. Cowardly lawmakers are afraid of controversy, having not built the trust and credibility with voters to withstand a tough vote.

There’s enough gridlock in Congress without adding this further impediment to compromise. Besides, voters are perfectly adept at term-limiting Congress members, as they’ve proven repeatedly.

There’s been no shortage of fresh blood in Washington. Roughly half the U.S. senators who were sitting in 2008 are gone today.

It’s true that too many in Congress stay too long, Detroit’s John Conyers being the poster child for that group. And incumbents do have an outsized advantage because of their fundraising ability.

States could go a long way toward breaking the power of incumbency by adopting fairer redistricting rules. But term limits have been a bad idea at the state level. They’d be an even worse one for Congress.