Democrats need to go all-in on term limits

The outlook for the Democratic Party looks bleak. They failed to take control of the senate in this year’s election, and with 25 Democratic caucus seats and only 8 Republican seats up for reelection in 2018, their odds of gaining any seats in the midterm are very low. Due to gerrymandering, the process of manipulating congressional district boundaries for one party’s advantage, the House is very likely to remain in Republican control in the midterms as well (note that gerrymandering is not a uniquely Republican thing, Maryland, for example, is heavily gerrymandered in favor of Democrats).


Given their current predicament, the Democrats need to act decisively to gain any sort of a foothold, and their best path forward may be to emphatically embrace a cornerstone of President-Elect Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign.


Drain the Swamp


Trump’s anti-establishment campaign included a call to “drain the swamp” that he claims our government in Washington, D.C. has become. In his “first 100 day” promise, Trump has stated that he will propose a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on congress on his very first day in office. I believe that, strategically, the best move for the democrats would be to propose exactly such an amendment in the very first session of congress, and whip the votes in advance to make sure that every single democrat in both chambers comes out in favor of it.


On face, term limits may seem like a great idea. Institutional inertia is very real, and fresh faces in congress may make the legislature more receptive to new and bold ideas. There are drawbacks, however. Lawmaking requires a great deal of institutional knowledge, and if politicians are limited in their ability to take their time and build such knowledge, they may rely on unelected lobbyists and experts to bridge the gaps. This may be part of why Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell has already shot down the possibility of backing such a proposal.


Putting aside the merits of term limits, lets ponder what would happen if the Democrats seized upon this proposal and forced the issue.


The Amendment Process


Trump has unambiguously stated his support for a term-limit amendment, and his election can presumably be read as popular support for the idea as well. The first major hurdle for putting it in place would be to secure a 2/3rds majority in favor of the amendment in both chambers. A Supreme Court ruling confirmed that an amendment is necessary to impose term limits, and a majority Republican House tried to pass one in 1995.  The amendment would have limited representatives to six two-year terms, and senators to two six-year terms (12 years in either body).  If such an amendment somehow did get through congress, 3/4ths of states would still need to ratify it, but lets focus on the congressional battle for now.

The Republican Options

For fun, lets assume that every Democrat in both the House and Senate came out in vociferous support for the amendment.  First, looking at the House, Democrats are projected to hold 192 of the House’s 435 seats (assuming the two Louisiana seats go red).  288 house votes would be required to move the amendment along, which means it would pass if 96 Republicans also voted for it.

Speaker Paul Ryan has stated in the past that he’s in favor of term limits, but a united Democratic front would put his words to the test. The Republicans would have two options here.  First, they could narrowly defeat the amendment.  To vote it down would put a lot of Representatives at risk, so Republican leadership would likely choose their 95 most vulnerable members to vote for the amendment, and the remaining 145 would risk appearing corrupt in the eyes of their constituents who just elected a man that wanted to drain the swamp.  It’s true that most congressional districts in general are safe, but as Former Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s surprise primary defeat shows, you’re never really safe from anti-establishment populist voters.

As a second option, the House could also come out in unanimous support of the amendment. By my rough estimate, if the next congress were to successfully pass a term-limit amendment, 84 Democratic and 116 Republican Representatives would be subject to term limits.  Beyond congressional district makeup, incumbency is a huge advantage, so such a shakeup could put enough seats in play to give Democrats a narrow path to control of the house.

Of course, even if the House unanimously passed the amendment, it could still be defeated in the Senate. If all 48 Democratic senators (again assuming the Louisiana senate seat goes red) came out in unwavering support for the Amendment, only 18 Republican senators could support it without it passing.  The remaining 34 would also risk the ire of populist voters who chose Trump out of mistrust of Washington.

Worth it?

It’s dangerous to speculate on why exactly Trump won without better data, but it seems a safe bet to say that many voters didn’t feel that the party was willing to hear their concerns and take them seriously. This gambit would send a message to those voters and signal willingness to work with the new President to improve the political system.  After ignoring the populist surges that occurred in both primaries, the Democratic party now needs to acknowledge them or risk perishing.  Day-one emphatic support of term limits could help the party shed the image of arrogant coastal elites who look down on the struggles of everyday Americans.

Even if a Republican congress successfully insulated its members themselves from the risk, this early action would drive a wedge between the traditional conservative and populist/anti-establishment wings of the party.  It would set the tone for future interactions between the President and Congress as one of animosity, and slightly undermine the blank-check that the GOP is currently playing with.  The battle itself (assuming the Democrats adequately promoted it in the media) may bring to light the inherent contradiction in either party, both of which rely on a deeply-entrenched establishment, waving the populist anti-corruption banner.  It may cause causal voters to think more deeply about the ramifications of procedural changes that sound good on face.

The risks are enormously high.  If the amendment made it through congress and passed the state legislatures, the entire leadership of both parties would be gone. Democratic whip Stenny Hoyer would be working to put himself out of a job.  But the Democrats are playing with their last few chips, and the poker player in me says this is the hand to go all-in.