It’s not a perfect system, certainly, given that incumbents win more often than actual competitive elections might suggest. Incumbents have an advantage on name identification and familiarity — and often have advantages that derive from being in office like lining up party loyalists in their defense or boxing out competitors. One can certainly argue, though, that such problems can be remedied in ways that don’t mandate the ouster from office of candidates who are broadly supported by their constituents.
Calling Congress a “lifetime appointment” ignores the fact that most members of Congress have been there for a bit over a decade. That’s about where the average experience was about 40 years ago, too. And it’s skewed upward by individual members of Congress who’ve served for 40 or 50 years. There are a lot more members of the House and Senate in their first terms than there are members with experience in more than 10 Congresses.
Steyer’s position is nonetheless popular, with 80 percent of Americans telling Quinnipiac University pollsters in November 2016 that they supported congressional term limits. That’s part of why Steyer raises it, certainly.
But part of it, too, is that support for term limits reinforces Steyer’s outsider bona fides. Steyer is running as a non-politician (similar to another well-known billionaire who ran in 2016). He’s embracing the everybody-hates-elected-officials view of term limits, not the reality of congressional elections in which it becomes clear that everybody actually hates everybody else’s members of Congress. Democrats in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s district don’t want Pelosi (D-Calif.) termed out. They want Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his crew booted once the timer runs out. People like their own member of Congress but think yours has simply been on the Hill for far too long.
Really, the question is what Steyer thinks will be accomplished by imposing term limits of 12 years. His campaign site argues that “that the longer an elected official serves in Congress, the less connected they are to their constituents.” That argument is certainly true of Reps. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), both of whom are seen as distanced from their constituents but both of whom are happily serving in Congress to this day.
Steyer’s site goes on to argue that the lack of term limits makes elected officials beholden to corporate interests. The idea being, it seems, that people who need new jobs in 12 years’ time will somehow be immune to the lures of corporate America. Imposing term limits, his site says, will free up members of Congress to not have to worry about their reelections. It’s a weird argument because, theoretically, Steyer would prefer that they have to worry about their next competitive election. The main way in which reelection drives congressional members’ calendars, of course, is fundraising — something that Steyer only worries about in the context of meeting the party’s debate criteria.
It’s fair to wonder what new effects term limits would introduce to the system. For example, how might term limits interplay with the rise in political polarization? The forced ouster of long-serving elected officials would seem to offer enormous opportunity for candidates advocating more extreme political positions, having the effect of amplifying political issues with short-term resonance as factors in political campaigns. The Senate’s six-year terms were meant to serve as a buffer against the political winds that buffet the more-frequently contested House races; Steyer’s proposal would kneecap that already wobbly idea.
In both chambers, after all, polarization has increased in the past 60 years, according to VoteView’s measure of the gap between the parties on the average ideologies of their caucuses.
What’s interesting about that increase is that polarization doesn’t bear any strong relationship to increases in tenure on Capitol Hill. Since the emergence of the Republican Party shortly before the Civil War, there’s been no correlation between polarization and tenure. Since 1953, when polarization began its upward climb, the average amount of experience in Congress increased as well. But polarization has gone up much more evenly than has tenure.
(This chart shows the relationship between the partisan ideological gap — higher gap at the top to lower at the bottom — and average tenure in Congress, moving from lower to higher, left to right. The line runs from 1855, at top left, to 2019, at top right, with 1953 illustrating the recent nadir in polarization. The solid line since 1953 has gone up a lot — more polarization — but not much to the right, meaning little change in average tenure on the Hill.)
Perhaps what this tells us is that polarization wouldn’t increase if term limits were implemented. The VoteView data give us some hint, though.
Newer Democrats, those in the least-experienced 10 percent of House members, are generally more moderate than the most experienced members of their caucus in recent Congresses. Newer Republicans, though, are generally less moderate. (The big shift among Republicans in the most-recent Congress is a function in part of retirements.)
Steyer’s proposal, then, might have the effect of moving his own party’s caucus to the center and Republicans to the right, at least if history is any guide.
It seems safe to assume that’s not what Steyer actually wants.