tom keane

Term limits disregard experience

Should Gabriel Gomez win the June 25 Senate contest, I hope he reneges on his vow to limit his term in office. Term limits may make for good campaign fodder, feeding into voter anger about “career politicians” captured by the dreaded D.C. Beltway, but they make for bad public policy. Massachusetts has a reputation for having an outsized impact on national politics. A Bay State senator planning to walk away from the job in a few years would undercut that, hurting his constituents and hurting the Commonwealth.

Granted, Gomez is having some fun. At their first debate, the Republican called Representative Ed Markey a “poster boy for term limits,” a line that’s gotten some traction — and one can understand why. First elected in 1976 at the tender age of 30, Markey, now 66, has spent 36-plus years in Congress — almost an entire lifetime of employment. That pales compared with, say, Michigan Representative John Dingell (57 years and counting), but it’s still good enough to make Markey the second-longest-serving member of Congress from New England. (Vermont’s Senator Patrick Leahy has him beat by a year.)

But there’s a logical flaw to Gomez’s rhetoric. Markey, of course, isn’t seeking another term as a US representative. He wants a new gig — senator — and should he win he’ll start off as a freshman (albeit, a well-known freshman). Term limits proposals don’t usually try to prevent someone from running for a new position. So Gomez’s argument really is less about public policy than it is about trying to persuade voters that enough is enough. It’s a fair point, but not the kind of thing to be enshrined in law.


But suppose it was law — or suppose Gomez as a senator took it upon himself to voluntarily limit his own term?

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If the latter, then he’d be like a fighter entering the ring with one hand tied behind his back. Gomez’s position is grounded in an almost naïve belief that all votes in the Senate are equal. That’s technically true, but also largely irrelevant. The real stuff of legislating occurs in committees, such as Appropriations, Judiciary, or Foreign Relations. All proposed legislation first goes to a committee. The committee decides what to consider and what to put on a back burner. Committees tightly control the few measures that go forward: holding hearings, making amendments and, should the bill be reported out for a full vote, managing the process on the floor.

And of course, when we talk about committees, we’re really talking about those who run committees: high-ranking members and, most importantly, committee chairs. And those lofty positions almost always go to those who have been around the longest and proven their legislative mettle. Power, in other words, is connected to seniority.

A Senator Gomez, should he choose not to run after two terms, would be walking away just as he’s getting into a position to really do some good.

Or perhaps what Gomez means is that he’d favor term limits for all, not just himself. If so, we’d nevertheless have the odd sight of senators compelled to leave just as they’ve finally gained influence. But far, far worse, what we’d end up with is a body of amateurs, easy prey for bureaucrats, lobbyists, and advocates — none of whom have term limits.


We’d also have a Congress of incompetents (and cheap gibes notwithstanding, that’s not the case today). There’s a myth about politics that it’s easy, that experience and knowledge don’t count. Untrue. Legislating requires the same kind of smarts and relationships that matter in any other line of work. No business in America would go about firing its most skilled employees merely because they’ve been around too long. Nor should voters.

That doesn’t mean that long-serving politicians should automatically be reelected. Other factors matter: ideas, enthusiasm, engagement, empathy, and so. Still, as former Speaker Tip O’Neill observed in 1991, “This country faces a lot of storms. And . . . when we’re in a storm you’d rather be under a good, old-fashioned, strong, worthy oak than some sapling of a tree that blows with the wind.”

Tom Keane’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.