Ky. Voices: A way to have term limits without the drawbacks

Michael Coblenz 
is an intellectual property attorney 
in Lexington.
Michael Coblenz is an intellectual property attorney in Lexington.

When he was running for Congress, Rep. Andy Barr supported a constitutional amendment limiting members of Congress to a total of 12 years of service: two terms for senators and six for representatives.

Proponents of term limits say that far too many politicians become entrenched in Washington and more concerned about re-election and post service opportunities than about their constituents. Supporters also say the current system is effectively undemocratic and note that in 2012, despite widespread hostility toward Congress, 97 percent of incumbents who ran for re-election won.

There's a great deal of truth to these concerns, but there are also problems with term limits. Political influence comes with seniority and small states can exert outsized influence through a long-serving elected official. Kentucky certainly benefits by having Mitch McConnell, the current minority leader, as our senior senator.

With seniority also comes knowledge, experience and expertise. New lawmakers lack knowledge not only of congressional procedures, but also the substance of government policy. Their staffs can help in matters of procedure, and there are some policy experts on committee staff; but in many situations, it's lobbyists who teach representatives about industries and the laws that govern them.

This is precisely the opposite of what supporters of term limits want, which is to shift power from Washington back to the citizens.

There is a way to get the benefits without the drawbacks.

Under the Articles of Confederation — which governed the nation after independence and before the Constitution was adopted — delegates to the Congress of the Confederation were limited to serve for three out of any six years. There was no limit on the total number of years a delegate could serve. This ensured a delegate would spend half of his time in his home state. This was also a proposed amendment in the First Congress, which was debated but rejected.

This is the kernel of a good idea. There should be no limit on the total terms but should be a limit on consecutive terms. My proposed amendment would say: "While there is no limit on the total number of terms served, a member of the House of Representatives is limited to five consecutive terms, and a member of the Senate is limited to two consecutive terms."

This means a senator could serve for 12 years and a representative for 10 years, but could not then run for re-election. They could run again after sitting out for a term.

This would break the incumbent lock on re-election, which would increase democracy, but wouldn't deny the people the seniority or expertise of an elected official. States would benefit from the national experience of returning politicians, and the national government would benefit by having politicians intimately familiar with state concerns.

This proposal would achieve the goals sought by the supporters of term limits, but without the unintended consequences feared by opponents.