Do We Need Term Limits for a Better America?

In November many Americans went to the polls to vote on various issues. In less than a year we’ll go back to vote in the Presidential election so the rhetoric will heat up with each passing month until November 2012. Knowing this I thought it would be a good time to look at a political issue – term limits – through the lens of influence.

Precedence was set with American presidents when George
Washington declined to run for a third term and based on his actions no president ran for a third term in office until Franklin Roosevelt did so in 1944. The unusual circumstance of a world war in two major theatres was a big reason for FDR’s decision. However, not long afterwards the American people passed the 22 Amendment which limited a United States president to a maximum of two terms in office.
For some reason Americans have not done the same thing when it comes to term limits for congressman and senators. While some states enacted laws to limit the terms of their particular representatives in Washington in an effort to move away from “career politicians” the U.S. Supreme court overturned those laws saying states could not limit the term of national offices.
I’m not going to argue if term limits are good or bad. Like just about anything in life there are positives and negatives to each side of the argument. What is concerning is whether or not the best people get elected and whether or not we’re getting fresh political ideas simply because of how voters make decisions.
I remember my pastor saying, “People will remain the same until the pain of being the same is greater than the perceived pain of change.” That’s akin to, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” Americans saw voter revolts in 1994 when republicans swept into power in the house and senate and again in 2010 because of our economic woes. Both times there was so much dissatisfaction with the status quo that people kicked out many incumbents. My question is, why do we have to wait for things to get so bad before we act? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” sounds good until you consider Steve Jobs and his iPhone. We didn’t need the iPhone because nothing was broken but we’re better off for it. Perhaps we could have the same fresh ideas and change in Washington if we routinely had new people in office.
Politicians are famous for saying things like, “We have term limits because voters can always vote someone out of office if they want to,” and, “Why do we need to restrict voter freedom?” Of course both arguments could be used against term limits for the president and yet as a country we thought it was good to limit the terms for the highest office in the land. I suspect career politicians are thinking first and foremost about self-preservation, not the good of the country.
But I digress and you’re wondering how influence ties into this. It will come as no surprise to readers when I state the obvious; nearly every sitting politician wins re-election the vast majority of the time. In fact, it’s staggering how often they win. Take a look at the charts below showing reelection rates for U.S. congressman and senators from the Center for Responsive Politics.

 

Are incumbents winning so often because they’re the best candidates? Hardly. It’s simply a function of familiarity. People go to the polls and tend to vote for the person they’re most familiar with and the farther you go down in terms of elected offices the worse it is because quite often people vote for the incumbent simply because they know nothing about the other person running. When you’ve seen or heard about your congressman for the past four years or your senator for the last six years that’s a lot of familiarity for a challenger to overcome.
On this subject, in his book Influence Science and Practice, Dr. Cialdini wrote, “Often we don’t realize that our attitude toward something has been influenced by the number of times we have been exposed to it in the past.” And it’s not just how often we hear a name it’s how much we see the face. Sitting politicians are routinely seen in the news and that helps unless their face is connected to a scandal. I can tell you from firsthand experience that I get much better response to my emails when I include my picture at the bottom of the email because familiarity helps.
While there many other things that come into play during an election we can’t underestimate the importance of simply being more familiar with one candidate vs. another. It’s the way we’re wired.
To be sure we – the typical American voter – are partly to blame because we’re notoriously disengaged when it comes to knowing the candidates, their positions, and understanding the issues. If anyone didn’t need term limits it would be presidents because I’d venture to guess we know presidential candidates better and understand the presidential issues more because of how much they’re in the media vs. lower offices and more localized issues.
In a sense terms limits save us from ourselves and how our decision making might be working against us. My boss likes to say, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” In other words, how can we expect anything different from Washington when we keep electing the same people for the most part? Yes, we can make a concerted effort to become more informed voters but with less than 60% of people of voting age voting in every presidential election since 1968 do we really think that will happen? I certainly don’t. Sometimes we need laws to protect ourselves from ourselves and I’d say term limits would be one such law.
Brian, CMCT
influencepeople 
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.
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Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
Chief Influence Officer at Influence People, LLC
Brian Ahearn is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence People, LLC. A dynamic keynote speaker, trainer, coach, and consultant, he specializes in applying the science of influence and persuasion in business and personal situations. He is one of only 20 individuals in the world who currently holds the Cialdini Method Certified Trainer® (CMCT®) designation. This specialization in the psychology of persuasion was earned directly from Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D. – the most cited living social psychologist in the world when it comes to the science of ethical persuasion. Brian’s passion is helping people achieve greater professional success and enjoy more personal happiness. He does this by teaching people how to ethically move others to action through the science of persuasion.
6 replies
  1. Tali Berzins
    Tali Berzins says:

    If you think about it, in our society today lifelong employment at one place is getting to be the exception more than the rule. So shouldn’t our Congress reflect this also? Term limits also wouldn’t need to be radical, for instance 6 terms for representatives and 3 terms for senators.

    Interestingly, I am reading a book on Deng Xiaoping and one of the chapters specifically deals with this issue in the Chinese Communist Party. He formalized a process where party and government members were retired at a certain age, as well as he initiated peaceful transition of power within the Chinese Communist Party.

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0674055446/ref=cm_li_v_cd_d?tag=linkedin-20

    Reply
  2. Keelan Kane
    Keelan Kane says:

    As I told Brian earlier, I tried posting a comment here once and on LinkedIn in general 3 times, to no avail. I'm testing to see if I can comment now, and if this goes through, I'll post my full 3-part comment (it's too long for one comment).

    Reply
  3. Keelan Kane
    Keelan Kane says:

    I. The difference between legislative power, executive power, and its impact on authority

    There is a fundamental difference between executive power and legislative power. This difference determines the effect that tenure in office has on perceived effectiveness and authority.

    A. Legislative power and the importance of tenure

    The legislative process is very tricky. First, there is the legislation itself – the bills that the legislators consider passing. But then there are (1) knowing whether the legislation, and particular legislative actions, are beneficial or detrimental (and for whom or what such actions are beneficial or detrimental); and (2) knowing HOW to achieve legislative action, which requires convincing the necessary legislative majorities to go along with the action.

    The key to legislatures (at least American legislatures) is that every legislator's power can be checked by the other legislators. That makes legislative activity an incredibly complex endeavor, involving strategies that balance policies, ideologies, egos, personalities, and a range of factors that Cialdini discusses, among other things.

    Unless a new legislator is a political genius, the maxim is: The longer one spends in legislative office, the better one gets at the game of legislating. As such, longevity in office is often important in legislative life because it is usually through familiarity with the legislative process that a legislator becomes effective in getting done what he or she needs to get done.

    B. Executive power and the dangers of tenure

    Executive power is very different. At least in this country, the chief executive does not have other equally-powerful executives to check his or her power. The executive's power is checked only by (1) the federal laws and the laws of the D.C. jurisdiction, and those who can enforce those laws independently of the executive; (2) the Congress; and (3) the U.S. Supreme Court. As such, the executive has a great deal of power. The executive usually does not need others to vote for or ratify his or her actions before such action is taken. And because so much of that power is unchecked by others with similar power, there is a real danger of the executive molding and changing the role of the executive according to his or her particular desires. As I understand it, that is why Congress passed the 22nd Amendment limiting the number of terms a President can serve in office.

    Of course, there is a question of why more states don't limit governors' terms if there is such a danger in the executive changing the office to fit his or her needs. Although I'm not sure of the answer to this question, I believe it has something to do with (1) the amount of territory that falls under the governor's control; and (2) the fact that there are other territories that also have governors, and that in principle, each of those governors has equal power. The U.S. President has no such domestic equals within the executive branch.

    Reply
  4. Keelan Kane
    Keelan Kane says:

    II. Tenure, term limits, and authority as factors in voting behaivor

    At long last, we come to the reason for this discussion: the role of authority and familiarity vis-a-vis term limits.

    While it is true that familiarity plays a role, I would argue that many people understand that the legislative and political process requires SKILL. And although voters may not understand the political process, they know that incumbents often have skills in working with the political process. An incumbent's possession of political skills endows that incumbent with AUTHORITY. And that authority tends to increase with the incumbent's tenure in office. I think voters think about that as well as their familiarity with the incumbent. And I think this goes a long way in explaining why incumbents are reelected so frequently, especially in the legislature.

    An absolutely brilliant book on the legislative process and the wielding of legislative power is Robert Caro's "The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate," the 3rd of Caro's 4-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. (Volume 4, about LBJ's time in the White House, supposedly will be published next year.)

    Keelan

    Reply
  5. Brian Ahearn
    Brian Ahearn says:

    Posting this on behalf of Keelan Kane:

    There is a fundamental difference between executive power and legislative power. The legislative process is very tricky. First, there is the legislation itself – the bills that the legislature considers passing. But then there are (1) knowing whether the legislation, and particular legislative actions, are beneficial or detrimental (and for whom or what such actions are beneficial and detrimental); and (2) knowing HOW to get that legislation passed, and convincing the necessary legislative majorities to go along with it. The key to legislatures (at least American legislatures) is that every legislator's power can be checked by the other legislators. That makes legislative activity an incredibly complex endeavor, involving strategies that balance policies, ideologies, egos, personalities, and a range of factors that Cialdini discusses, among other things. Unless a new legislator is a political genius, the maxim is: The longer one spends in legislative office, the better one gets at the game of legislating. As such, longevity in office is often important in legislative life because it is usually through familiarity with the legislative process that a legislator becomes effective in getting done what he or she needs to get done.

    Executive power is very different. At least in this country, the chief executive does not have other equally-powerful executives to check his or her power. The executive's power is checked only by (1) the federal laws and the laws of the D.C. jurisdiction, and those who can enforce those laws independently of the executive; (2) the Congress; and (3) the U.S. Supreme Court. As such, the executive has a great deal of power. The executive usually does not need others to vote for or ratify his or her actions before such action is taken. And because so much of that power is unchecked by others with similar power, there is a real danger of the executive molding and changing the role of the executive according to his or her particular desires. As I understand it, that is why Congress passed the 22nd Amendment limiting the number of terms a President can serve in office.

    Of course, there is a question of why more states don't limit governors' terms if there is such a danger in the executive changing the office to fit his or her needs. Although I'm not sure of the answer to this question, I believe it has something to do with (1) the amount of territory that falls under the governor's control; and (2) the fact that there are other territories that also have governors, and that in principle, each of those governors has equal power. The U.S. President has no such domestic equals within the executive branch.

    At long last, we come to the reason for this discussion: the role of authority and familiarity vis-a-vis term limits. While it is true that familiarity plays a role, I would argue that many people understand that the legislative and political process requires SKILL. And although voters may not understand the political process, they know that incumbents often have skills in working with the political process. An incumbent's possession of political skills endows that incumbent with AUTHORITY. And that authority tends to increase with the incumbent's tenure in office. I think voters think about that as well as their familiarity with the incumbent.

    An absolutely brilliant book on the legislative process and the wielding of legislative power is Robert Caro's "The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate," the 3rd of Caro's 4-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson.

    Keelan

    Reply

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