Congressional Term Limits vs Increasing Elected Representation


For nearly the past century states have been referred to as the "laboratories of democracy", meaning states can independently pass laws that affect only their constituents and issues that may be unique to their circumstance. If a particular law proves to be strong and successful, other states and even the federal government may then, and often do, adopt similar laws to affect more states or, at the federal level, the entire country. It is one of the strengths of a federalist structure.

Over the past couple of decades a number of laboratory states embarked on experiments of legislative term limits as a means to address "corruption", real or perceived, among legislative members. We now have fifteen states with some level of enacted legislative term limits. What has been the result? 

Have these states produced a better product of governing than states with without? Has corruption been reduced? Do everyday citizens have more of a say in the governmental process than before the legislation? Has the power of government somehow shifted back to the people?

Having worked in a number of these state legislatures, I will argue the answer is a resounding no to all of these questions. While turnover among legislators is higher than other states, the balance of power has not shifted. Matter of fact, it has arguably galvanized. Institutional knowledge, and the resulting power, on crtical issues has moved to bureacratic staffers and agencies, making them more powerful and less accountable. Outside influencers in the form of lobbyists remain and has been enhanced by former members, who were forced out of office, joining their ranks to influence their former colleagues. When a member is facing his/her last year or two in office by term limits, oftentimes they are more concerned about their next political or lobbying gig so that they can support their family than they are about impacting state policy for the betterment of all. These are the true effects of legislative term limits. 

Is term limits now the answer to the problems in Washington? I will argue that we already have the answer produced by our laboratories in the states. And the answer is no.

So, how could the U.S. Congress be improved with better representation and create a better work product? 

Consider this.

The U.S. House of Representatives was last increased in size by Congress to its current membership in 1913. That year the population of the United States was roughly 95 million people. Each member of the U.S. House represented roughly two hundred twenty thousand constituents. Today each member represents over seven hundred thousand people on average, a threefold increase, corresponding with a threefold increase in the population of the country. This is contrary to the spirit of a representative republic. Today, constitutents are more "represented" by bureaucratic agencies and legislative staff members than their elected representative in the U.S. House. If a citizen has a grievance and would like to talk with their representative, seldom does that happen. Non elected staff members intervene.

Furthermore, in 1929 when Congress failed to reapportion itself after the 1920 census, they passed the Permanent Reapportionment Act of 1929, locking in the number of House members at 435, a completely arbitrary number. Why? Simply because they didn't want to have to deal with the issue of reapportionment and expanding elected representation ever again.  They abdicated their responsiblity as outlined by the framers of the Constitution who never dreamed that one member of Congress could effectively represent three quarters of a million people. The founders envisioned districts of 30,000 people, not 700,000.

Over the last one hundred years of 435 House Members, the population of the United States has more than tripled. Why hasn't the size of the House of "Representatives" also tripled? In addition, over the same period of time, while elected representation has not increased, the number of non elected congressional staff has increased dramatically, arguably exponentially, along with every federal agency, wielding their will and power over what should be constituents.

While "conservatives"  may bristle at the idea of "expanding" the size of government, I will argue that it would/should actually reduce the size of federal government by reducing the terribly bloated non elected staff structure and partially replace with elected members serving a smaller number of constituents. These districts would then be more similar in size to state senate districts in many states.

The benefits of expanding the size of the United States House of Representatives would be far greater than implementing term limits on representation, which is also counter to the concept of elected representation by arbitrarily disqualifying candidates because of time served. Why should voters in a Congressional district be deprived of quality representation if that is who they choose?

Expanding the size of the U.S House would produce many tangible benefits. Just to name a few: 

Representation closer to the people. Smaller districts would allow, even force, elected members to interact more directly with constituents by eliminating some level of bureacracy.

Smaller district size would allow an easier pathway to challenge non performing or corrupt incumbents by reducing cost of campaigning creating more turnover in the legislative ranks.

Gerrymandering would become less of an issue as the number of districts would increase to better reflect the population as a whole. Specific communities would be better represented.

There are many other tangible and intangible benefits to Congressional expansion, but in my opinion Congressional term limits is not the answer. 

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