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Weighing in on Term Limits and Re-districting to Stop Congressional Gridlock

Congressional Gridlock

Apartment Industry Colleagues,

Happy summer!

I have the pleasure of traveling to a number of NAA affiliates each year as part of my role on the Government Affairs team. Typically, I am afforded some time to speak to a membership meeting, Leadership Lyceum or other gathering and share some information or observations on what’s happening in Washington, D.C. Considering the daily serving of shenanigans in the Nation’s Capital, there is no shortage of gallows humor at the level of gridlock or craziness that pervades the federal policymaking process. Stand-up comedians have made careers from the material they get out of Washington.

During a recent affiliate visit, I discussed the current election cycle and the overwhelming percentage of incumbents that would win re-election this fall and the relatively few Congressional seats that are competitive. A member commented that she felt the only way things would get done was if there were new members of Congress serving in office. She then asked if I thought she should put her efforts behind the term limits movement to try and change the system by limiting members of Congress to a specific number of years in office. Because we are often discussing as an association how to impact the political system to achieve our goals, I thought I would share my two-part response to her inquiry.

First, I think there are disincentives for members of Congress and voters to actually support term limits. While several states and even local governments have term limits on their elected representatives, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states cannot institute the same on their federal officeholders. Imposing term limits on Representatives and Senators is a constitutional change which must start in the House of Representatives with a two-thirds vote of support. Following the Republican “revolution” in 1995, just such a vote was held (term limits were part of the “Contract with America” used at that time to unify Republican candidates across the country) but fell well short of the needed votes. This was a moment where the proverbial rubber met the road.

The more recent tea party “revolution” notwithstanding, I believe that members of Congress still would not vote against their own best interests or the perceived best interests of their constituency. They want to stay in office until their “work is done” and cutting that short because of an arbitrary deadline interrupts that work. This applies to members of Congress at all points along the political spectrum, by the way.

One popular argument against term limits is that it is the right of the voters to re-elect the same people to representative them, no matter the consequences. I agree with this argument. In fact, if the people were truly outraged with the state of affairs in Congress they would press their own representatives to support a constitutional amendment to impose term limits. Since they have not, can we assume that there is no support for this? The challenge is that while voters would likely overwhelmingly support limiting the term of other members of Congress, they do not want to limit the term of their own. So what is a citizen advocate to do?

The second part of my answer was to suggest that what is worth focusing our attention upon as voters is the process for re-districting in the states. This is a structural change that took hold in the last decade and, in my view, has contributed to the deterioration in problem-solving capabilities in Congress.

After every decennial census, the states undergo a redrawing of the lines for their Congressional districts. This is intended to respond to changes in population (some states gain seats in Congress while others lose seats), ensure compact, contiguous districts and perhaps keep local units of government within the same district. In practice, however, the process has been used by both parties to draw lines that create almost impenetrable partisan strongholds that virtually guarantee one-party control until the next decennial census. You know this process as gerrymandering and it has become increasingly easy due to improvements in technology and mapping. As a result, in at least five states the “opposition” has been relegated to just a few districts while the majority controls the rest of the state. Moreover, the only way majority incumbents can lose is to a primary opponent from their own party. This tactic has been used by Democrats in states where they control the legislature and by Republicans in states they control.

I prefer the approach that Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey and Washington have adopted which is to give the district drawing process to an independent or bipartisan commission. The goal is to reduce the impact of partisan politics. While far from perfect, it has to be an improvement upon what has been done in some of the 34 other states where the legislature draws the lines. 

If the goal of “compact and contiguous” congressional districts is met through these independent or bipartisan entities then you typically have heterogeneous districts not solidly in one party’s hands. That can organically mean fewer extremists of either party. While it does not guarantee more moderates, it does increase the chances that the representative of that district must take into account a wider pool of perspectives than just those of his or her own party. Extrapolate that to Congress and you would have less polarization and more discussion to solve the big issues facing the nation. That should be something we all want.

Don’t forget to email me and tell me what you think of this column.

Thanks for reading and talk with you next month.

P.S. The opinions expressed here are mine and do not necessary represent the views of the National Apartment Association.