It’s Time to Refresh Congress

Incumbencies and career politicians are making Congress outdated. Term limits would help.

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Chuck Grassley is running for reelection to the United States Senate—for the eighth time. He is 88 and has been a senator for 48 years. His significant length of service and age do not stand alone. In fact, the average age of a senator is over 64 years old. The often renewed House of Representatives, with an average age of 58.4 years old, does not fall far behind. With no disrespect to the Congress members who have contributed to our country, term limits on Congress must be instituted.

For one, Congress could use a fresh injection of ideas. With term limits, Congress could eventually be filled with a new set of politicians whose backgrounds would provide a brand new set of experiences and perspectives, which we don’t have enough of now; only 12.9 percent of representatives and nine percent of senators are newly elected in the current Congress.

Term limits are also important electorally. Conceptually, Congress serves as an outlet for citizens to express their will through representatives who reflect their state and district. The absence of term limits has created a massive distance from that ideal. Overwhelmingly, incumbents dominate elections with 93 percent in the House this year. Such high rates of reelection have been a constant trend for the past 50 years. When an incumbent is defeated in either a primary or a general election, it is often considered a major political event and is analyzed heavily for what it might indicate in terms of political and demographic changes.

There are several reasons for this imbalance. One is the sense of comfort that comes with name recognition. Even if voters do not follow a race closely, they are still more likely to recognize their senators or representatives than a challenger who has only become mainstream during that race, and thus, they feel inclined to vote for a more familiar candidate. Moreover, barring a major controversy, voters tend to believe that members of Congress know what they are doing. Already being a congress member brings its own set of advantages, such as existing financial structures and connections with parties and fellow members. Connections are key to elections, as a flock of endorsements from major party officials can tip the scales in a primary or excite party voters in an election. For example, throughout his presidency, Donald Trump took the stage with congress members to help push their reelection campaigns. The high rate of incumbency pushes back against the movement toward diversity and youth as the entrenched establishment faces off against its youthful challengers. That recurring conflict would be avoided for both parties if term limits were established, gradually removing the Old Guard and preventing a new one from forming and recycling the same issue.

Long-term incumbency creates an establishment of career politicians who legislate from their perspective as politicians rather than as citizens. It is troubling to have political parties that are more identifiable by their politicians than their policies and key legislation. Having elected officials like Minority Senate Leader Mitch McConnell with systems to defeat legislation without so much as a vote is harmful to democracy. Long-serving incumbents have a strong disconnect from their constituents since they have spent so much time working and scheming on Capitol Hill. Term limits erode this establishment and can replace it with a new, diverse body.

One avenue for gaining diversity is age. This year, the mean age of a newly elected senator or representative is around seven years younger than the overall average age of both the congressional bodies. The 2021 Georgia Senate runoff elections, which drew much attention, added a young, invigorating politician, Jon Ossoff, to the older body. He is more socially connected to the American youth, a recently disaffected group, than many other senators. Ossoff’s connection to this demographic will hopefully continue to increase young Americans’ civic awareness, and this trend will only continue with the elections of more young senators.

It is not just age and service, though. With every election, Congress is becoming increasingly diverse. One hundred forty-three women are serving in this Congress, an increase from the 33 of the last general election and 55 from 2008. Racially, a record almost quarter of voting members of the House and Senate is either Black, Hispanic, Asian American, or Native American. With this demographic change, Congress is hearing voices it has never heard before. As white men are still heavily overrepresented in the United States legislature, term limits would allow new congress members to refresh Capitol Hill, hopefully reflecting the constantly changing America. With term limits, white congressmen would be cycled out far quicker than they are usually voted out. If current trends continue, voters will replace those congress members with ones who better represent the American population.

To replace the dug-in politicians currently dominating Congress, term limits, passed through an amendment by both Congress and individual states, are a strong alternative. With a potential term limit of two terms, congress members would have 12 years to create change without being entrenched for too long. A term limit of six terms for the House would have a similar restriction. While it may seem counterintuitive for Congress to restrict itself, the House reached a majority on an amendment to institute term limits in 1995. Though it did not receive the two-thirds of votes necessary to pass, this support could be achieved over time and through political campaigning. Term limits would achieve the new look that Congress needs.