Term Limits Suck. Just Ask the Romans.


Anyone who has had the misfortune of listening to me for more than about ten minutes knows that I’m absolutely obsessed with Ancient Rome, specifically the Roman Republic, which served as a major inspiration for the founding fathers. They identified the strengths and the weaknesses of that early republic to craft our own. The cursus honorum is one of the features they omitted. 

The Cursus Honorum (or Ancient Term Limits)

In the Roman Republic, elected officials handled civil administration – aediles managed public buildings, quaestors managed the treasury, praetors were judges, etc. Each job had a minimum age of eligibility, much like our own elected offices (25 to be a US representative, 30 to be a senator, 35 to be president). So, that much is the same. However, in Rome, public officials were expected to follow the cursus honorum, Latin for “course of honors.”

Subsequent offices in the cursus were designed such that one could achieve the office at the minimum age of eligibility, wait the mandated period between elected offices, and then achieve the next one at the minimum age of eligibility. Achieving office in this way was known as being elected “in his year.” This was a significant accomplishment, especially for being elected consul (an office somewhat similar to the presidency) in your year. 

The cursus honorum was known colloquially (heh heh heh) as the “ladder of offices.” There were official and unofficial rungs. The first rung was an unofficial one. 

Holy sh*t, I’m finally getting to the point. 

The Rungs of the Ladder

Military service was the unofficial first step of the cursus honorum because the military was of the utmost importance to the Roman Republic. I don’t mean that in the sense that every country’s military is important to its security; I mean that the military consumed between 50 and 80% of the entire Roman economy. The late Republic was essentially a series of cities and farms created to sustain a military, not the other way around. Since the military was essentially the Republic’s raison d’etre, senators and administrators were expected to begin their public careers in the military. 

In the United States, only about 1% of the population is in the military at a time, and only about 7% of the population are veterans. Servicemembers make up about 17% of the current US Congress, down from 73% in 1973. I’m sure there are several reasons for that, but I can’t help but think our previous 20 years of endless war can at least partially be blamed on politicians abandoning the first step of America’s cursus honorum.

They visit troops and tour bases, but do they viscerally understand the costs of war? Do they understand the day-to-day logistics of fighting a war? Perhaps, if they better understood the daily working nature of the military, they’d have a better understanding of what can and cannot be accomplished by the armed forces

In Rome, a career in politics began in earnest after military service.. 

Career Politicans and the Ladder of Offices

“Career politician” is a dirty word in 2022; if you call someone a career politician, you’re essentially talking about them like they aren’t a child of God. Roman republicans were similarly distrustful of politicians using long careers of wheeling, dealing, and influence-peddling (they did, however, appoint senators for life). They had very strict term limits in their administrative positions; elected officials could only serve one or two terms (it varied in different eras of the Republic). So, why did the Founding Fathers, students of the Roman Republic, reject term limits? 

Well, the strict term limits in Roman civil administration didn’t prevent politicians from creating careers of politics; they encouraged them. Julius Caesar, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Marcus Porcius Cato, the list goes on. These famous names were all career politicians. So, how’d that happen with such tight term limits?

When a politician is limited, he or she doesn’t necessarily exit politics at that point; they seek a higher office. City councilmembers run for the state House, state representatives run for the state Senate, state senators run for the US House, etc. If the United States had strict term limits, we wouldn’t drive career politicians out of office. We would just create our own cursus honorum. And what would be the result?

Politics Ain’t Beanbag

Writing legislation is difficult and takes a long time to learn. Developing expertise on an incredibly wide range of subjects is difficult and impossible to do. Discovering the true nature of power players is difficult and can have disastrous consequences. With rapid turnover in legislative chambers, we would have tons of legislators who have little to no experience with any of these things. Who would have the experience, though? Former legislators, lobbyists, and bureaucrats. 

So, let’s consider a scenario. A freshman US congresswoman from Alabama arrives in Washington DC. She doesn’t even know where the bathrooms are. She gets a call from the former US senator from Alabama offering to show her around. He schedules some meetings for her. She meets with some lobbyists from Alabama Power, Hyundai, and Regions Bank. They pitch her on an amendment to the budget which is due in a few weeks. They contributed millions of dollars to her campaign, and she’s going to need to grow an even bigger campaign coffer because she’s going to run for the Senate once she reaches her term limit. 

After her meeting with the lobbyists, she meets her staff. She doesn’t know Washington DC subject matter experts, so she keeps the staff from her predecessor. She doesn’t know how to write federal legislation since she’s never done it, but the staffers have years and years of experience. Fortunately, they already have some fossil fuels legislation written for the previous representative.

The bill has been researched and largely written by a group of experts who have PhDs related to fossil fuels and have been in Washington DC for decades. The legislation is also endorsed by those same lobbyists she needs for her upcoming Senate election. Is it a good bill or a bad bill? Who does it hurt? Who does it benefit? She doesn’t know, but there’s a lot of powerful people saying she should sponsor it. 

None of this really matters, though, because she’s going to lose her job no matter what she does. The greatest and most effective legislator in America loses her job. The worst and most corrupt legislator in America loses her job. So, she has no real incentive to do a good job. She just needs to vacuum up enough money to clear the primary field for her Senate race.

Since most states are solid red or solid blue, the primary is the only real contest. Spend a couple House of Representatives terms building up money and connections. Use those to get to the Senate. Do the same thing in the Senate and clear the field for the gubernatorial race. Rinse and repeat. 

Does that sound better? 

This is all moot, though. Legislators already have term limits. Every two years, US representatives have to be re-elected. Every six years, US senators have to be re-elected. The term limit is four years for representatives and senators in Alabama. If you want to get rid of your representatives, vote. Voting is your power to remake America. Nobody is going to fix this for you.