It makes increasingly perfect sense why President-elect Donald Trump wants congressional term limits. And it makes just as much sense why his putative Republican helpmates on the Hill will overlook short-term political expediency and take the lead in rebuffing him.
Atop Trump’s “drain the swamp” campaign platform was the promise to push restrictions on time served in the House or Senate, although he’s not specified how short the maximum congressional tenure should be.
“We’re going to put on term limits, which a lot of people aren’t happy about, but we’re putting on term limits,” he said during his “60 Minutes” interview right after the election. “We’re doing a lot of things to clean up the system.”
It’s easy to understand the first, obvious reason this would remain high on his stated agenda: The public overwhelmingly supports the idea. Two weeks before Election Day, the Rasmussen Reports poll found 74 percent support for congressional term limits among likely voters, with the rest evenly split between opposed and undecided.
A possible secondary rationale comes with an implication of disingenuousness, but evidence to support such speculation grows by the day: Trump wants to increase the strength and power of the executive branch to another new height, and weakening the legislative branch through term limits is one way to accomplish that.
The candidate who accepted the GOP nomination with a dark vision of the nation’s future, and the declaration that “I alone can fix it,” is now transitioning toward the White House on the same path of extreme personal self-confidence coupled with extraordinary, robust use of presidential authority.
After his courtesy calls on the top Republican leaders a day after claiming victory, Trump largely retreated from public view, so his brief infomercial before Thanksgiving outlining his first 100 days’ agenda took on outsized importance. And it was remarkable as much for its medium (YouTube, not a news conference) as for its messages, both stated and unstated.
The Capitol’s inhabitants were justifiably thunderstruck by the two words they never heard — “Congress” and “legislation.” Rather than pay so much as lip service to the idea of legislators collaborating with him from the start, Trump spoke about spending his first winter in Washington entirely on executive action.
Never say never?
Some of what he described went beyond undoing many of President Barack Obama’s executive orders, which the GOP Congress is fully behind. Most notably, he said thousands of his administration’s officials won’t be allowed to lobby for five years afterward and won’t ever be permitted to advocate on behalf of foreign governments. Such decrees will never get enforced unless Congress writes them into law.
Lawmakers who have been in office for more than a few years are bound to acquire a serious understanding of this sort of balance of powers — not to mention a rooting interest in preserving, if not advancing, the authorities Congress has for making policies and overseeing those assigned to execute them.
But if they arrive knowing they can’t stay for long (three two-year terms for House members and a pair of six-year terms for senators are the proscriptions most often advocated) there will be much less incentive for members to lean into their institutional prerogatives.
And Congress will have much less of the collective knowledge and expertise required to outlast an assertive president, outmaneuver an institutionalized federal bureaucracy or outsmart the legion of lobbyists who will undeniably be able to find a way to keep lurking in the muddy eddies of Trump’s dried-out quagmire.
To cite just one current example, it’s tough to imagine House Budget Chairman Tom Price having any remotely plausible hope of steering a reconstruction of the federal budget process to completion in the next Congress — except that, as a GOP congressman from Georgia for a dozen years, he’s had time to develop unrivaled expertise in the system’s fatally flawed current mechanics and unequaled knowledge of the political rivalries and special interest crosscurrents complicating any revamp. (Price will unveil his plan on Wednesday.)
Congressional terms may only be limited by constitutional amendment, the Supreme Court has ruled, meaning bipartisan two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate would need to coalesce behind a plan and then three-quarters of the states would need to endorse it.
Such a level of support doesn’t exist. The most prominent opponent, for starters, is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who’s ruled out any collaboration with Trump on the matter.
‘They’re called elections…’
“We have term limits now,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters Nov. 10. “They’re called elections. And it will not be on the agenda in the Senate.”
Speaker Paul D. Ryan professes support for term limits, although he told reporters Nov. 17 he’ll leave the matter in the hands of the Judiciary Committee, without any pressure from him. (He’s also not made any promises about curtailing his own time as a Wisconsin congressman.)
It’s been two decades since Congress last considered the question, soundly turning aside a constitutional amendment even at a time when the anti-incumbent fervor of the electorate had spawned momentum for term limits in dozens of states.
In the House, the proposal was the only one among the 10 “Contract with America” planks to suffer outright rejection, even after that very GOP manifesto for revamping the way Congress works helped end four decades of Democratic rule. The proposal came up 61 votes short of the supermajority necessary in 1995 because 40 Republicans (predictably, mainly from the ranks of the long-tenured) voted against it.
Senate Republicans tried to revive the issue the next year, but gave up when they could muster only 58 votes in favor of bringing the constitutional change to the floor.
For opponents of term limits, a really important argument for their cause lies just beneath those outcomes. Those tally sheets provide evidence that, as McConnell says, the natural political cycle results in plenty of congressional turnover.
Thanks to retirements, defeats, resignations or departures for other reasons, next year’s 115th Congress will open with just 84 lawmakers (16 percent of the total membership) who were in the House or Senate as recently as that 104th Congress.