Amid intense partisan, and often generational divides, the advanced age and extensive tenures of many of America’s leaders at all levels of governance has, over the last few years especially, become a topic of much passionate debate. One possible solution to this matter was proposed by Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in the form of a constitutional amendment , which would target heightened legislative seniority by limiting the service of Representatives to no more than three two-year terms in the House, and Senators to no more than two six-year terms, with certain caveats and contingencies. In this dialogue-styled column (which we’re calling “Devil’s Advocate”), Granahan will argue in favor of the amendment’s passage while Gaughan will argue against. With regard to this particular topic, both personally hold the views they have represented below.

For (Granahan):

Congress is broken. This isn’t a fringe ideology solely perpetrated by anti-government extremists and empty-gesturing populists, but a common sentiment among Americans of diverse backgrounds and political affiliations. As of February 2023,  only 18% of Americans approve of how Congress is doing its job. It should therefore be no surprise that 69% of Democrats and 72% of Republicans wish to see term limits for members of both houses of Congress. Considering the detrimental effects that the proliferation of unmitigated career politicians have had on the American political system, it is not difficult to see why Americans want these politicians out.

The status of an incumbent member of Congress does not — or perhaps should not — inherently establish superior qualifications over one’s opponent in pursuit of reelection, and yet, incumbency is arguably the most crucial leg-up a candidate can have. Incumbents benefit tremendously from increased name recognition, established campaign infrastructure, and solid connections with powerful interest groups. Consequently,  91% of House incumbents and 84% of Senate incumbents were reelected in the 2018 midterm elections. In a nation where 82% of citizens do not approve of Congress, there is clearly something wrong when so many of the same members of Congress are consistently reelected.

While on the topic of interest groups, incumbency advantage enables groups such as super PACs and 501(c)(4) organizations to make a significant negative impact on policy decisions. For instance, by December 2007, only 36% of Americans supported the ongoing Iraq War. Despite this disapproval, Congress continued to reauthorize the war over the next few years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the 2008 election cycle, defense contractors donated over $12 million to congressional campaigns. 

Of these donations, only $65,750 were directed towards challengers running against incumbents. The undemocratic political hegemony of interest groups overwhelmingly benefits incumbents, who are in turn motivated to appease the interests of groups which often seek to undermine the will of American citizens at large.

The anti-democratic practice of gerrymandering is also regularly used to affirm the supremacy of an incumbent in a politically heterogeneous area. In the hopes of receiving special favors or pork-barrel funding from Congress, it is common for state legislatures to draw electoral boundaries that all but guarantee an incumbent’s reelection. It is estimated that 87% of sitting members of the House of Representatives serve in gerrymandered districts. This practice decreases the competitiveness of elections, which in turn leaves candidates unaccountable to voters and leads to the creation of “safe” districts, where candidates must only campaign on one aspect: whether there is a D or an R next to their name.

Forty-two years ago, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) was elected to the Senate. Thirty-six years ago, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was elected to the House of Representatives. No thanks to the lack of congressional term limits, both of these politicians remain in office. Both received millions of dollars in interest group contributions during the 2022 midterm elections, and, as a result of incumbency advantage, both will almost assuredly continue to be reelected until the heat death of the universe. Just as the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution protected the institution of the presidency by establishing a two-term limit, it is well past time for term limits for members of Congress, as working in government should be a public service, not a career.

Against (Gaughan):

It’s easy for younger Americans, passionate about bringing new ideas and embodying the boldness of generational policy differences, to assert a seeming illegitimacy or unjustness in the entrenched positions occupied by many of our nation’s more senior congressional leaders. And it is true, beyond this student’s reproach, that many of those officials have abused the hand granted them by experience and incumbency. But we must remind ourselves that there is a difference between change and progress.

[For one, while Americans in search of a new approache to] and congressional action on many of the defining issues of our generation — such as climate change and gun safety — may rightfully decry the obstructive powers of institution-ingrained legislators in blocking reform, they might also note that much of the strongest opposition they have faced in doing so came likewise from an experienced corner of the national political scene.

Left-leaning Americans might decry the ability of institution-ingrained leaders like Sen. Mitch McConnell to block gun reform legislation, but best not do so before recalling that it was institutional cogs like Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and former Speaker Rep. Pelosi (D-CA), among many others, who ushered to passage the country’s first major (albeit weaker than many would have hoped) gun control legislation in nearly three decades. 

They might also note that it was through the institutional muscle of Senators Schumer (D-NY) and Manchin (D-WV) that the “Inflation Reduction Act” was passed last year, investing billions of dollars in the battle to reduce carbon emissions.

This is all to say that efficacy and experience ought not always to be dismissed as an unfair advantage or as an evil. Any politician who has been around the block enough times to enjoy a tenure as long as McConnell or Schumer might be suggested to have made deals, compromises, and uncomfortable policy decisions in order to remain in the good graces of the powerful party machines, special interest groups, and of course, electorates that keep them in office. But to suggest that the same might be untrue for any candidate for office familiar with the more powerful bill-footing organizations and general elections system makes little sense. The decision to compromise one’s values reflects on the person who makes it, not the office they hold.

Additionally, we can easily decry the high-level interest group expenditures in campaigns across the country, but the truth is that spending would be equally present — and perhaps, even greater — in an open race. For an example of this, one need look no further than the most expensive Senate race of 2022, excluding Georgia and its December runoff election: Pennsylvania, between then-Lt.-Gov. John Fetterman, and Dr. Mehmet Oz, which according to CNN’s Election Day report, drew a grand total of $373,605,258 .

We have a right to expect integrity from our elected officials, but the manner of enforcement should not be an indictment of the offices to which they have been elected, nor of the ability of those who elect them to make sound judgments in whom they choose to represent their interests. With regard to legislative bodies, like the two of which our Congress is comprised, experience matters, and often, but surely not always, derives efficacy. 

It should be the goal of the system to ensure the people are represented in the manner they themselves choose, by the leaders they select, not on the basis of a forced lack of experience, through a constitutional system change which would exclude their direct voice on the matter altogether. The success of our republican state demands that the final say on any officeholder lies directly with the constituency they serve.