A time for congressional term limits

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When I ran to represent Wisconsin’s 8th District, I made a promise to treat my time in Congress like a deployment, not a career. During my time in the Marine Corps, I saw firsthand the change in mentality a deployment can bring to a group of Americans from diverse backgrounds. What I saw young servicemen and women accomplish was extraordinary. But when I came home, I saw much of our work undone by career politicians in our nation’s capital. As a result, I fundamentally do not believe that politicians who spend decades in the nation’s capital can change Washington before Washington changes them. 

That is why I am joining with a bipartisan group of new members of the 115th Congress calling for term limits. This month we took to the House floor to return power back to the American people and limit the tenure of service in the House of Representatives and Senate.

{mosads}Year after year, unfulfilled promises to “fix the system” pile up with few results. Rather than draining the swamp, the swamp simply grows deeper and more insidious. 

Just look at our federal debt, which is quickly approaching $20 trillion. A child born today in America will inherit that burden, the victim of an intergenerational crime without consequence. Meanwhile, our middle class is in decline, as the out-of-work factory worker, middle manager, and small business owner face extraordinarily tough times. Seven million of our fellow citizens have been pushed out of the labor force and our veterans aren’t getting the care they deserve. We spend and we spend, and yet we are somehow unable to help the people who need it—and that makes the American people rightly conclude that if we are spending so much without helping those who need it, we must instead be helping those that don’t

The Founding Fathers understood such profligacy to be the natural tendency of all governments and thus established our unique American system of checks and balances on the power of those who govern us. Central to this system, though all but forgotten today, was the idea of the citizen legislator. As Thomas Jefferson argued, politicians would lay down their private endeavors for a season of service and then “return into the mass of the people and become the governed instead of the governors.” This would have the practical effect of avoiding a disconnect between those who make policy and those who have to live with its consequences, a disconnect President Eisenhower touched on in 1956 when he said: “You know, farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.”

Yet somewhere along the way we strayed from this model, and moved towards a permanent class of “governors” hopelessly out of touch with the “governed” and capable of enriching themselves through the offices they occupy. If you doubt this is true, then Harry Reid has some land in Nevada he wants to sell you. 

I fully recognize we hear this argument every two years with no results. Terms limits are a popular campaign promise, as a strong majority—75 percent to be exact—of Americans favor the idea. But politicians seem to quickly abandon that promise once they take the oath of office or introduce a token term limits bill and do nothing to advocate for it. After all, a newly elected member is not rewarded with a plum committee assignment by rocking the boat and trying to change the rules that benefit their newfound friends in the political class.

But this election cycle was different. Citizens from both parties are fed up with politics as usual. Draining the swamp has bipartisan support. And a new president with little allegiance to politics as usual has also pledged to push a Constitutional amendment for term limits, part of a broader effort “to clean up the corruption and special interest collusion in Washington, D.C.” 

So I say we get this done. Towards that end I’ve introduced a bill with my freshmen colleagues designed to approach term limits in a practical way: applying it only to ourselves and subsequent Congressional classes so it phases in over time. The legislation would allow members of the 115th and subsequent Congresses to serve six terms (12 years) in the House and two terms (12 years) in the Senate. For those who fear term limits might reduce the relevant expertise needed to get things done I would respectfully submit that if 12-24 years is not enough time for a member to master the legislative process, then the member has no business serving in Congress in the first place. 

Others object to term limits on the grounds that the founders already built term limits into the Constitution: every two years for a member of the House and every six years in the Senate via elections. But if this is true why, as my Democratic colleague Rep. Ro Khanna (Calif.) pointed out, is the turnover rate in Congress less than it is in some European Monarchies? How is it possible that Congress has a stunning 96 percent incumbent re-election rate, yet it simultaneously has a lower approval rating than cockroaches, colonoscopies, and Genghis Khan? The American people feel Congress as an institution is broken and failing to do its fundamental job, yet the structural advantages of incumbency are so great that few people ever get fired from this job.

I’m not naive enough to believe that term limits alone will fix what is wrong with Washington, D.C. But I do believe they are an important step. Special interest groups don’t see Democrats and Republicans, they only see members of Congress pins, and potential ways to spread their influence. The more divided we are along party lines, the better for them. But, if Democrats and Republicans can join together on this issue, there will be a lot of fear in “the swamp”.

My predecessor—a true citizen-legislator who spent his life building a successful roofing company—made a point that has stuck with me.  He said that his self-imposed term limit meant that every day he went to work in Congress he knew he had one less day to make a difference. As a result he woke up every day with a sense of urgency and fearlessness to do the right thing on behalf of his constituents, not do what was expedient for his political career. 

Imagine if all 535 elected members of the House and Senate woke up with that same urgency and sense of purpose. Imagine what we could accomplish together. 

Gallagher represents Wisconsin’s 8th District.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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