It’s fitting that 2016 would close with fits of furiously impassioned debate over a fantastical proposal that is never going to become law.

“I will push for a constitutional amendment to impose term limits” on Congress, Donald Trump pledged on Tuesday. The hurdles associated with passing an amendment to the Constitution—passage by two-thirds majorities in both chambers of Congress, followed by the ratification of that amendment by the legislatures of 38 states—renders the process impractical, if not impossible. Proposing a constitutional amendment to advance a policy preference is, therefore, a risk-free proposition. Be it term limits or restrictions on the First Amendment to limit the freedom of speech enjoyed by corporate entities, as Hillary Clinton has proposed, such proposals are essentially talking points in full regalia.

The opposition to term limits isn’t limited to establishmentarian Beltway elites who jealously guard their careers as lifetime politicians, although there are those. Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin defended his vote in the Senate in 2012 to defeat an amendment submitted by former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint in favor of term limits (which failed by 24 to 75 votes) by insisting that the only check on legislators careers should be the voters in their states and districts. There is something to be said for this. Career legislators are not impervious to the wrath of their voters. In 2016 alone, two long-serving Democratic members facing indictment were handed their walking papers by their district’s primary voters. Accountability at the ballot box happens. Even minus an angry electorate, attrition happens. The turnover rate in Congress over the last six years has been 50 percent—70 percent in the Senate over a twelve-year period.

There is a well-supported argument against term limits, which holds that such impositions only empower influence peddlers and unelected bureaucrats. Term limits exist at the state-level, and the revolving door for state-representatives-turned-state-senators-turned-lobbyists is observable. This cushy career path is the very definition of unintended consequences.

Moreover, if the idea is to target corruption, term limits that target elected officials who are responsible to the public misses the point. Democrats are reeling from the ongoing revelations regarding Hillary Clinton’s email scandal, the latest wrinkle of which involves a State Department functionary seeking FBI clearance to reclassify some of her emails to bury them in exchange for State approving of more FBI agents in Iraq. This “quid pro quo” scandal does not involve lawmakers but bureaucrats. Indeed, Clinton herself has so far been relatively insulated from this and other scandalous behaviors by those around her. She is, however, responsible to voters, and likely will be again in four years. Her subordinates are not.

Ah, but Trump’s plan doesn’t seek to root out corruption per se. In its totality, it is geared toward compelling lawmakers to get in and out of Washington as fast as possible. In a “five-point plan for ethics reform” released by the candidate on Monday night, Trump pledged to pursue a five-year ban on all executive branch officials from serving in a lobbying role. The plan requests that Congress pass a similar ban that would bind members and their staffs to the same prohibition.

These are not new ideas, but marrying a populist lobbying ban with a term limits amendment that has been a dream of conservatives for decades and already has the support of Republican lawmakers and grassroots voters is smart politics. Donald Trump has run a demagogic campaign predicated on the prohibitive strength of his personality. That message carried him far—within sight of the White House—but his lack of discipline has obscured his message.

It is far too late to get on track now; this goose is cooked. But Trump has forged a path through a bramble thicket of partisan instincts toward a marriage of populist progressivism, anti-elitism, and nationalism that will attract imitators. That some this is questionable policy is beside the point. It’s effective. Of all the legacies of Donald Trump’s experiment with presidential politics, that may be the scariest of all.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link