Term limits for congressional staff? 10 reasons it’s an awful idea
Though Trump has been vocal in his support of term limits on members of Congress as part of his pitch to “Drain the Swamp,” the potential reform has never been extended to the thousands of congressional aides serving in district offices and on Capitol Hill.
The idea is unlikely to go anywhere, but even its discussion is a signal of how frustrated voters and members themselves are with how Congress, and the Washington milieu, currently operate. Running against Washington has traditionally been an effective campaign strategy, but the fact that a group of current members view longer-serving, experienced congressional aides as a threat to effective representation is concerning.
The truth of the matter is, while often operating behind the scenes with very little attention, congressional aides serve as lawmakers’ primary institutional resource, and are essential to the execution of the many and varied aspects of their job as elected officials. Put another way, just like in every industry, experienced employees should always be a valued commodity.
Here are 10 reasons why the implementation of term limits for congressional staff is a bad idea:
- Many staffers are experts in specific issue areas and serve as sources of institutional memory for members (and other staffers). You limit the tenures, you limit the expertise. And when you limit the expertise, you amplify unintended consequences of policy decisions.
- Limited experience and expertise means staffers must look elsewhere for information/policy alternatives and guidance on how to do their jobs effectively. Everything we know says they will turn to special interests to fill the information void.
- Plus, we already have a special interest/revolving door problem where private firms lure experienced aides to take advantage of their knowledge and connections, turning an internal congressional resource into an external resource.
- Working on Capitol Hill isn’t easy — doing so means long hours, high stress, very limited opportunities for advancement, etc. Effectively defining how long they can stay will make recruiting talent to Congress even more difficult.
- We already have a staff turnover problem (see: limited pay) where a Capitol Hill “veteran” is defined as someone who has been there for more than five years. In what other profession does limited experience lead to more effective, efficient outcomes?
- The government is YUGE! It takes time to learn policies, develop networks for coalitions, identify key players, let alone know who to call to help constituents with passport and Social Security problems. Limits would render members less efficient at constituent service, too.
- Staff give rank-and-file lawmakers a better shot at being involved in policy creation. Limited staff tenures would consolidate decision-making power (even more, if possible) to those with institutional privileges (committee chairs and party leaders).
- Experienced aides better know how to conduct congressional oversight, a key role of the First Branch. New aides will be far less familiar in executing agency information requests, conducting investigations, etc.
- Staff term limits would exacerbate congressional deference to federal agencies. Novice aides won’t have the issue knowledge or experience to assist members in pulling back policy decisions presently carried out by bureaucrats.
- We are likely to witness an infusion of new members after the 2018 midterms who will arrive with no experience working within a more functional Congress. Limiting staff tenures will mean limiting those who have the historical perspective to guide us back to more civil, productive times.
There are many reasons for the current dysfunction in Congress and around Washington, but long-serving congressional staff simply isn’t one of them. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Instead of members being open to limiting and diminishing their own internal capacity by implementing term limits on their aides, a more productive conversation should center on how to keep valued congressional staffers in their jobs longer. We, members included, would be far better off.
Image credit: Orhan Cam