The recent death of the long-serving California senator Dianne Feinstein at age 90 has raised, once again, the issue of congressional term limits.
It’s understandable. The median age in the United States Senate is 65, and the median age in the House of Representatives is about 58. The current Congress, the 118th, is the third oldest since 1789, with the second-oldest Senate and the third-oldest House. There are members of Congress, like Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who have held their seats since the 1980s.
It’s no wonder, then, that when asked, a large majority of Americans consistently say they want term limits for Congress. Just last month, in fact, Representative Ro Khanna of California announced a political reform bill that would institute 12-year term limits for members of Congress and 18-year term limits for Supreme Court justices.
I think it makes sense to have term limits for the federal judiciary, since these are unelected officials who are intentionally insulated from public opinion. But for a few reasons, I think enthusiasm for congressional term limits is misplaced, even as — like many Americans — I would prefer if Congress were a little younger than it is.
First, term limits violate the basic democratic principle that voters should be allowed to choose their representatives. If the people of a state or district believe that a lawmaker has represented and will continue to represent their interests in the legislature, they should have every right to elect him or her to office for as long as they like.
Second, and related to the first point, is the fact that term limits do not discriminate between effective and ineffective lawmakers. Term limits would, by design, force competent, conscientious and talented legislators out of office, depriving the legislature of their skill for no reason other than a knee-jerk distaste for long-serving lawmakers.
Which leads us to our third point: Term limits reduce congressional capacity and destroy any incentive that might exist for a lawmaker to develop policy or procedural expertise. It’s easy to forget at a moment when some of our most prominent lawmakers are little more than influencers, but legislating is real work that demands actual expertise. Any elected official who hopes to do anything serious must build relationships with other members, as well as learn the ins and outs of writing laws. This takes time, the same way that expertise in any profession takes time.
To deprive a legislature of expertise and knowledge is to create a vacuum that will be filled, since the legislature still needs to legislate. In states where term limits exist, the executive bureaucracy tends to wield greater influence over policy than the public’s elected representatives. So do lobbyists and interest groups, who simply have more time to build their own expertise. They, rather than lawmakers, become the stewards of institutional knowledge.
Term limits are a good way to create the appearance of change. They are also a good way to weaken a legislature. They are not a good way to solve the problem of political competition, which is what their proponents seem to want most.
If the problem they hope to solve is that of incumbency and a lack of rotation in office, then the solutions should be aimed at making challengers more viable and elections more competitive. This means campaign finance reform, it means an end to partisan gerrymandering, and it might even mean an end to single-member districts and a move to some form of proportional representation.
Those are much harder lifts than limiting the ability of lawmakers to serve their communities. But they have the critical advantage of actually tackling the problem, which is more than you can say for term limits.
What I Wrote
My Tuesday column was on the countermajoritarian features of the American political system and why they are as much a threat to American democracy as the MAGA movement is.
Veena Dubal on the Supreme Court’s war on the right to strike for Dissent.
Adam Gaffney on Medicaid for The Nation.
An n+1 symposium on Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie.”
Eric Foner on Jonathan Eig’s new biography of Martin Luther King Jr. for the London Review of Books.
Fran Hoepfner on Bradley Cooper’s forthcoming Leonard Bernstein biopic, “Maestro,” for her Substack newsletter.
Photo of the Week
I got a chance to see a building where The New York Times is printed and took a few photos while I was there. This is what the printing press looks like in action. It’s pretty cool.
Now Eating: Weeknight Fancy Chicken and Rice
I am reasonably sure I have shared this recipe before, which comes from the Cooking section of The New York Times by way of the book “My Two Souths” by Asha Gomez, but I made the dish this week, so I figured I’d share it with you again. I have no modifications to make, although if you are watching your saturated fat and cholesterol, there is nothing wrong with using olive oil instead of ghee.
¼ cup ghee (or use unsalted butter)
1 large yellow onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
6 green cardamom pods, crushed
3 whole star anise
1 ¼ teaspoons kosher salt, divided
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 ½ teaspoons turmeric powder
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into ¾-inch pieces
2 ¼ cups low-sodium chicken stock
1 ½ cups basmati rice
¼ cup chopped dried apricots
¼ cup sliced raw almonds, toasted
¼ cup chopped cilantro leaves
In a medium saucepan with a lid, melt ghee over medium-high heat. Add onions, cardamom, star anise and ¼ teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until onions are soft and a very deep golden brown, about 15 minutes, lowering heat if necessary to keep from burning them. Add garlic and turmeric; cook and stir for 1 to 2 minutes, or until very fragrant. Add chicken and cook for 4 minutes, stirring to coat chicken with the onion mixture.
Add stock and remaining salt, increase the heat and bring to a boil. Add rice, stir and cover. Reduce heat to low and simmer until the rice has absorbed liquid, about 12 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for 12 minutes. Remove lid and fluff rice with a fork.
Transfer chicken and rice to a bowl, taking care to remove and discard cardamom pods and star anise. Garnish with apricots, almonds and cilantro. Serve at once.