Term limits without amending the Constitution
The idea of citizen legislators, espoused by our Founding Fathers, centers on the discussion of term limits. Many voters across the country and legislators across party lines have expressed support for term limits, making the idea one which attracts bi-partisan support.
When my home state of Florida passed term limits, 76 percent of Sunshine State voters voted in favor. In fact, Florida is one of 15 states to currently have legislative term limits. This year, a nationwide poll conducted by McLaughlin & Associates found that 82 percent of voters support Congressional term limits, including 89 percent of Republicans, 83 percent of independents, and 76 percent of Democrats.
Despite clearly expressed views of the American people, some argue that term limits would overly empower unelected staff and bureaucracy. Others argue that a semi-permanent legislative class is the best way Congress should function, despite how the Founders fought a revolution to get away from exactly this.
The Brookings Institute wrote recently that, in their opinion, “policymaking is a profession in and of itself,” that “crafting legislative proposals is a learned skill,” and that “the public is not best served if inexperienced members are making policy choices.” I doubt many Americans who live outside of Washington, DC, would agree.
Although 15 states have instituted term limits, the situation is more complicated at the federal level. Heretofore, federal term limit discussions have focused on proposals which require amending the Constitution. These well-intentioned efforts, in the form of at least 12 bills in the current session of Congress, with over 90 co-sponsors, are stymied by the arduous process of amending the Constitution.
As former Senator Tom Coburn wrote during the 2016 election, “Americans haven’t agreed on much during the presidential primary, but one thing seems clear: they are frustrated with the federal government.” Perhaps a new approach to the issue of term limits would enact the will of the people. To this end, along with seven of my fellow Congressmen, I have introduced the Thomas Jefferson Public Service Act of 2018. This proposal offers a means of effectively putting capitated service, i.e. “term limits,” in place without amending the Constitution. The Act will reduce the salary of an elected Member of Congress to $1 a year after they serve six (6) consecutive terms in the House or two (2) consecutive terms in the Senate, and does not require a Constitutional amendment. Is it possible that a disruptive, game-changing measure like this could instill public confidence in Congress and set the stage for a wave of innovation and accomplishment?
From the time of Cincinnatus, who twice entered public service to save Rome from attack and then duly returned to work his farm, to Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who refused to consider public service as a career, history is replete with examples of leaders who served their country for a time and returned to private life, or who went on to serve in a different way. For example, after serving as President, John Quincy Adams became a member of the House and had been a Senator prior to service as our Ambassador to Russia and the United Kingdom.
Even though some Washington pundits and some of the so-called “special interests” might disagree, I would argue that regular rotation of elected officials would stimulate more fresh ideas and make our legislators more independent. Once these limits take root, a new culture might arise which would be indomitable.
Many states have had this positive experience with their term limits. They certainly work well in Florida. Contrary to arguments that term limits would overly empower unelected voices, the experience with term limits in Florida demonstrates otherwise. State government has shrunk, spending is under control, and the people overwhelmingly support this system.
The Thomas Jefferson Public Service Act could help more closely align the Congress with the electorate.
Francis Rooney is the U.S. Representative for Florida’s 19th congressional district. He is the Vice Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and serves on the Committee on Education and the Workforce. He previously served as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008.