Last week, U.S. Representative George Holding filed a resolution seeking to impose term limits on members of Congress—six terms for those in the House and two for the Senate. He joined freshman North Carolina senator Thom Tillis, who’d co-sponsored a resolution with several other Senate Republicans to limit representatives to six years and senators to twelve. 

Holding, now in his fourth term, pitched it as a matter of efficiency: “The problem here that we’re trying to address is folks don’t have a limited horizon. They don’t have a deadline. If you watch Washington, things are always done on a deadline. Whether it’s a cliff or expiration date, that’s when things get done.” Tillis called it an effort to “bring long-needed accountability” to the Capitol.

This isn’t new terrain for either of them—or, for that matter, for the Republican Party, which has been banging this drum since the Contract with America. And it’s a pretty popular idea. Something like four in five Americans think term limits are a good idea, and term-limits legislation has been introduced in every congressional session since World War II.

Still, there’s a performative aspect to this latest round of resolutions: Holding and Tillis and the rest of these folks know they’re not voting themselves out of a job anytime soon. Thanks to a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, congressional term limits can only come through a constitutional amendment, and a constitutional amendment is a steep hurdle to clear: two-thirds of both the House and Senate, then approval by three-fourths of the states. 

If that weren’t the case, you wonder if they’d be so enthusiastic—not just out of personal interest, but because term limits are a really, really bad idea, the kind of thing meant to sound good to lay people but that really only function to empower special interests.

For starters, as with anything, legislating is a learned skill; inexperienced lawmakers, without older hands to guide them, tend to make poorly designed laws with lots of loopholes to exploit. Experienced members would be forced out; newcomers would have to lean on agencies, bureaucrats, and lobbyists to get a handle on the place.

If you’ve ever wondered why the Tea Party populists who led the Republicans to power in 2011 were fundamentally unable to govern—and eventually led the GOP to eat itself and give the world Donald Trump—well, here you go. 

You’d also have fewer policymakers with actual expertise in specific fields, creating, as the Brooking Institute puts it, “a tremendous brain drain on the institution. Fewer experienced policymakers in Congress results in increased influence of special interests that are ready and willing to fill the issue-specific information voids.”

And while proponents talk of term limits imposes accountability, in practice, the opposite happens. States that have legislative term limits tend to see increased corruption, studies show, in part because of lawmakers’ increased reliance on lobbyists and special interests for information. And as Brookings notes, term limits would also make the revolving door problem between Congress and special interests worse, because “mandating member exits ensures a predictable and consistently high number of former members available to peddle their influence.”

All of which is to say, term limits are the kind of thing that sounds great if you don’t think too hard about what they’d actually do: You don’t like Congress, you think it’s corrupt and no longer responsive to the people, so change the law to force the bastards out. 

Of course, there’s an easier way to force corrupt, non-responsive bastards out: Vote for their opponents. Tillis and Holding will both be up for re-election next year. So will the rest of North Carolina’s congressional delegation. If you think them corrupt or non-responsive, vote for the other guy (or woman). If you think they’re doing all right, send them back to Washington. That’s how democracy works. 

Or, at least, that’s how democracy is supposed to work: Voters decide whether their representatives are representing their interests; if they aren’t, someone else gets the job. What the term-limits crowd has homed in on is the pervasive sense that the machine is broken. And they’re not entirely wrong. Incumbency comes with huge entrenched advantages, such as name recognition and fundraising capability, and often the backing of interest groups and powerful PACs.

But the cure they’re touring is worse than the disease. And sometimes, it can obscure the core of the disease itself. In North Carolina, despite Democrats earning almost as many votes for Congress as Republicans statewide, Republicans were reelected to all ten of the congressional seats they held. To this they owe a very aggressive partisan gerrymander, which has legislative Republicans—themselves protected by gerrymandering—to protect congressional Republicans from the will of the voters.  

Term limits would do nothing about that. 

To recap: Term limits are an empirically awful idea that would exacerbate the very problems they seek to remedy. But even though voters like them—or at least, like the sound of them—they’re not going to make it through Congress because politicians are, above all else, self-interested. 

All for the best, really.

Except if you’re the editorial board of The Wilson Times—for what it’s worth, the paper’s editor, Corey Friedman, once appeared on this website defending Jordan Peterson—which not only thinks term limits are grand (“The Constitution’s framers wanted a true citizen legislature …”), but thinks we should enact them by means of a right-wing fantasy called the Convention of States, which, in theory, could allow conservatives to write all kinds of crazy into the country’s founding document: ban abortion and gay marriage, eliminate the income tax, let states nullify federal laws, make it a crime to speak ill of Donald Trump’s hair, etc., all without the messiness of actual democracy. 

There’s a reason this method has long been a conservative pipe dream: The convention would give each state a vote, regardless of its population. It would treat Wyoming the same as California, New York the same as Mississippi. Big, liberal, coastal elites would find themselves at the mercy of much smaller, much denser, but more numerous heartland states. 

That said, this too is a stretch. For a convention to take place, the legislatures of thirty-four states need to agree to hold one; twelve have passed resolutions to do. To amend the Constitution at that convention, thirty-eight states will need to approve each amendment. Democrats currently control at least one legislative chamber in nineteen states, enough to block both the convention and any amendment. In other words, it’s not happening anytime soon. Heck, even the North Carolina House of Representatives—hardly a bastion of wild-eyed progressivism—didn’t take up this cockamamie scheme in 2017. 

Again, all for the best. 

Amending the Constitution was designed to be hard. That’s why we’ve only done it seventeen times since the Bill of Rights. Getting rid of shithead politicians? Not so much. Draw fair districts, and if they let constituents down, send ’em packing. No need for a constitutional amendment, let alone the Pandora’s Box of a convention. 

Unless, of course, Thom Tillis and George Holding think you’re just too stupid to quit voting for them. In which case, I suppose, they could always resign. 

One reply on “George Holding and Thom Tillis Think You’re Too Stupid to Stop Voting for Them”

  1. If everyone that wanted to run had an equal chance as far as money and exposure I would agree with your article however that is not the case. I think we’re all tired of the so called elite running the show for their own benefit.

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