Imagine, if you will, a political party. A party so frustrated by its inability to win elections that it instead proposes new rules to make it easier for its side to gain control.

The very idea is shocking, right? No political party – especially not in a well-established, stable Western democracy like the United States of America – would dream of engaging in such obscene manipulations. It’s not as if Democrats would ever change the filibuster rules to make it easier to confirm lower-court judges, or Republicans would ever block a Supreme Court nomination for purely political reasons, or … oh, wait. This sort of thing not only happens all the time here, it’s become so commonplace that voters no longer notice when it does.

Indeed, virtually any time either party chooses to embrace some supposed reform, it’s not because they’ve suddenly become altruistic. It’s because they think the proposed reform will help them politically. We saw this in Maine with ranked-choice voting, which began as a non-partisan grassroots effort that was opposed by insiders in both parties – Democrats only truly embraced it when they realized it might help them win elections.

So it goes with term limits: Although the concept has largely been taken up by conservatives in recent memory, it hasn’t always been a partisan issue, and it hasn’t exactly been embraced by the Republican establishment. This is epitomized by the divide on the issue between Rand Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky, and Mitch McConnell, the senior senator from Kentucky and Senate Republican Leader. Paul, first elected during the 2010 tea party wave, enthusiastically supports term limits; McConnell’s well-worn response is that we already have term limits, called elections. Neither is entirely wrong, and this divide isn’t only on the right. Some younger, more progressive reformers on the left embrace term limits as well, even if Democratic leadership won’t.

Now, though, Democrats have found another reason to support term limits (at least in another branch of government) that may find more widespread support: on the United States Supreme Court. Frustrated with the willingness of the current conservative supermajority to curtail progressive ambitions, Democrats are considering a whole host of so-called “reforms” to the body that would, conveniently, make it easier for them to install more liberal justices. The one that’s gained the most attention of late is the addition of seats to the court, enabling Democrats to appoint more justices. Another idea that may gain more traction, though, is the introduction of either term limits or a strict retirement age.

The idea of term limits is not new to the federal government. Presidents are limited to two terms in office. Conveniently, though, members of Congress have never shown any interest or willingness to impose any sort of limitation on their own ability to stay in office. That’s why the average age of U.S. senators is north of 60, and why activists in both parties have lately resorted to primary challenges in an attempt to inject more youth and diversity (and ideological purity) into Congress. Term limits, regardless of whether they’re a good idea or not, might make it easier for both parties to have a younger, more diverse membership in Congress.


At least, that’s the going theory.

The problem is not only that there’s no guarantee that will actually happen, but neither individual members nor party leadership have much motivation to restrict their own terms in office. Indeed, they have supreme motivation to resist the imposition of term limits – not only do they wish to remain in office, but entrenched incumbents are far easier to defend, even in seats that should be politically competitive. Moreover, the lack of turnover in Congress restricts the ability of both parties’ more activist, ideologically driven bases to oust party leadership and seize control.

Really, there’s no reason for liberals to embrace radical proposals to restructure the Supreme Court, either. Although the current conservative supermajority might seem entrenched, it’s rather precarious. Still, if Democrats actually do want to make changes to the Court, the introduction of term limits would be (marginally) better than the expansion of it, but only if they agree to impose them on Congress as well. Then, at least, term limits would exist in all three branches of government, rather than just one, and the idea might draw bipartisan support.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel

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