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How our governments – and governance – could be improved by term limits

12 January 2021

5:00 AM

12 January 2021

5:00 AM

After a contentious two-year term capped off by a tumultuous 2020, January 3 marked the beginning of the 117th Congress of the United States. 

Amid all the turmoil, last week also marked the departure of former House Foreign Affairs Asia-Pacific Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Ted Yoho. First elected to represent Florida’s 3rd Congressional District in 2012, Yoho pledged to his constituents that he would serve no more than four terms in the House. While many American politicians make similar pledges when first seeking elected office, fewer ultimately keep them, with many finding reasons to bend their promises once they reach Washington. This is why it was so noteworthy when Congressman Yoho announced in December 2019 that he would retire at the 2020 election. 

I must admit that I am not entirely impartial. I had the immense pleasure of joining Congressman Yoho’s D.C. office for several months at the beginning of the 116th Congress in early 2019. During that time, I came to know the Congressman as a man of firm principles and deep conviction with a strong commitment to upholding the U.S. Constitution and the ideal of limited government. Even during his final weeks in office Yoho continued to demonstrate this strong character, recently leading an international coalition of lawmakers in supporting Australian winemakers against Chinese Communist Party boycott. There was never a doubt in my mind that he would honour his word and keep his term-limit pledge. 

The virtues of congressional and parliamentary term limits are manifold. Among the more obvious are eliminating incentives for careerism, providing regular opportunities for renewal, and promoting a broader pool of lawmakers with greater diversity of professional and lived experience. Perhaps most importantly, term limits have the potential to free our parliamentary representatives from the constraints of electoral politics and enable them to dedicate their energy to their important legislative responsibilities and the critical task of policy reform. America’s Founding Fathers understood these advantages, with George Washington voluntarily giving up the presidency after only two four-year terms in 1797 and every subsequent president with the exception of FDR more than a century later following this example. 

It is increasingly clear that Australians could also benefit from a similar commitment by our parliamentarians to term-limited service. As former Treasurer Peter Costello suggested earlier this month, speaking of his own experience of the Howard years, even good governments can begin to deteriorate over time. One of the greatest challenges to necessary policy reform is a lack of political courage. When our politicians become more concerned with winning elections than with delivering upon a given policy platform, their role as the people’s representatives begins to come into question. It might even be asked what purpose they serve at all.  

Without singling out any individuals, and with all due respect to our elected representatives, the nation seems to have enough public relations, marketing, and media and communications graduates in parliament, ministerial offices and the public service. Instead, we could do with a few more reformers – people prepared to take bold action in the public interest to address our nation’s greatest challenges. This is exactly the sort of leadership that term limits allow. Take Yoho’s example: during just eight years in Washington, he has had more than 60 items of legislation enacted into law as sponsor or cosponsor and has consistently ranked as a top leader in Congress in terms of legislative efficacy. 

Particularly in an era in which the solution to every public policy problem seems to be to liberally hand out taxpayer dollars while saddling future generations with the burden of ever-increasing debt and inevitably higher taxes, we need leaders who will commit to potentially unpopular and even career-ending policy reform. Reigning in public expenditure, modernising labour regulation, and introducing an internationally competitive corporate tax rate are all reforms that may face strong opposition from certain sectors. Nevertheless, the most politically popular policies are unlikely to be enough to facilitate the government’s much aspired to ‘V-shaped recovery’. 

Term limits were not mentioned in the report released late last year by the parliament’s influential Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into the conduct and outcome of the 2019 election and ways to move forward.

But in 2021, as we begin to overcome the coronavirus and emerge from devastating lockdowns that have ravaged the economy, our political leaders will be required to make difficult decisions in order to safeguard the nation’s future prosperity. We cannot afford for these challenges to be left in the ‘too hard’ basket. Leaders focused on solving today’s problems, rather than pre-empting tomorrow’s elections, could be just what the doctor ordered. 

Xavier Boffa is the Executive Director of the Samuel Griffith Society. He interned in the Washington, D.C. office of US Congressman Ted Yoho in early 2019. 

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