In recent years, professional politicians have come under a great deal of criticism. They have been accused of being corrupt, indebted to special-interest groups, and more interested in getting re-elected than working for the people. This cynicism about career politicians has led to demands for term limits—placing legal limits on how long legislators can remain in office.
Term limits can take different forms. A legislator could be limited to a certain number of terms for life, or, he or she might be allowed to run again after being out of office for a while. Those now holding office could be required to count the terms they have already served, or, the term counting might start with the next election. Opponents of these restrictions, however, argue that term limits prevent voters from electing whoever they want, which violates the very idea of democracy.
Term Limits Over Time
Ancient Athens, the world's first democracy, placed a two-year lifetime limit on citizens who served in the Council of 500. Athenians believed this term limit promoted widespread public service and prevented tyranny.
During the American Revolution, delegates to the Continental Congress were limited to three one-year terms over a period of six years under the Articles of Confederation. But, when Rhode Island delegates reached the three-year limit, they refused to leave office. After much heated debate, Congress finally dropped the issue and the Rhode Islanders remained.
The founding fathers were divided over the principle of "rotation in office," as congressional term limits were then called. Jefferson and Washington favored it; Madison and Hamilton opposed it. Largely because of the unpleasant experience with the Rhode Islanders in the Continental Congress, "rotation in office" never made it into the Constitution.
For the first 80 years of our country, however, few members of Congress served more than two terms. But after the Civil War, this changed. Congress organized permanent committees, which were chaired by the members with the most seniority. From then on, the longer a senator or representative served in Congress, the more powerful he or she became. Many members of Congress started serving long careers.
Ironically, the first successful federal term limits were not aimed at career politicians in Congress. They were directed at the president. Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt had managed to get elected to four terms. After World War II, a Republican Congress passed, and three-fourths of the states ratified, the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This placed a two-term limit on the president. Attempts to impose term limits on Congress failed at this time.
Term Limits and the States
Much of current demand for term limits is a reaction against the continuing re-election of career politicians. Since the end of World War II, incumbent U.S. senators have won re-election 75 percent of the time. In the House of Representatives, the re-election rate for incumbents has been over 90 percent.
High re-election rates may simply mean voters are satisfied with their senators and representatives. But it also may mean incumbents have many advantages over their rivals. They have greater name recognition, an office staff paid by the taxpayers, and mailing privileges. They also find it easier to raise large amounts of campaign money from special-interest groups seeking favorable legislation. This is especially true when an incumbent senator or representative chairs an important congressional committee.
In 1990, California voters approved a ballot proposition that capped terms in the state Assembly to a total of six years and terms in the state Senate to eight. These are lifetime limits, although a member of one house who reaches the limit there can run for the other house or for federal office. Since 1990, a total of 18 states have adopted state legislative term limits.
In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in U.S. Term Limits v. Thorton that adopting similar term limits for federal legislators would require a Constitutional Amendment. Before this decision was reached, 22 states had already adopted term limits for their representatives in Congress.
Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the court, writing that "Allowing individual States to adopt their own qualifications for congressional service would be inconsistent with the Framers' vision of a uniform National Legislature." He specifically cited Article I of the Constitution as the Framer’s definitive list of qualifications – age, residency, and citizenship — for House and Senate members.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Thomas wrote that "Nothing in the Constitution deprives the people of each State of the power to prescribe eligibility requirements for the candidates who seek to represent them in Congress." He argued that the establishment of term limits fell into the category of states’ "reserved powers."
The Term-Limits Amendment
The American people overwhelmingly support congressional term limits. Opinion polls show 70–80 percent approval ratings. During the 1994 congressional elections, House Republicans proposed a term-limits constitutional amendment in their "Contract with America."
After taking control of the House, Republicans led by Speaker Newt Gingrich fulfilled their promise to bring term limits to the floor for debate and a vote. Actually, the House considered four different versions of a term-limits constitutional amendment. The main Republican proposal called for a maximum of six consecutive two-year terms in the House (12 years) and two consecutive six-year terms in the Senate (also 12 years). These would not be lifetime limits. Term counting would begin at the first election after the amendment had been ratified by three-fourths of the states.
During the House debate, the majority of Democrats opposed any version of term limits. While most of the Republicans favored at least one of the proposed amendments, some veteran GOP House members rejected the whole idea. "In time of real crisis, we need people of experience," protested 20-year Republican House member Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.). By contrast, many freshman House Republicans criticized the main GOP proposal for not going far enough. They wanted to cap House terms at three (6 years).
Generally, House members in favor of term limits argued that elections would become more competitive, resulting in a Congress based more on merit than longevity. Since legislators would remain in office for relatively short periods of time, they would be more likely to make tough legislative choices and less likely to become dependent on special-interest groups for campaign contributions. The new citizen lawmakers would also be less susceptible to corruption, complacency, and arrogance than "lifetime legislators."
The opposition countered that term limits would sweep out both good and bad lawmakers. Those elected to take their place would tend to concentrate on immediate issues rather than what was best for the nation in the long run. By being in Washington for only a few years, senators and representatives would be apt to become overly dependent on government bureaucrats and special-interest lobbyists for information about pending legislation. On the last day of the debate in the House, Rep. Hyde asserted that, "America needs leaders, it needs statesmen and it needs giants—and you don't get them out of the phone book."
On March 29, 1995, the House voted 227-204 in favor of the main Republican term-limits amendment. But the vote fell short of the two-thirds majority (290) needed for the constitutional amendment to pass.
For Discussion and Writing
- Who do you think makes a better lawmaker: a "professional politician" or a "citizen legislator"?
- Why did Congress become dominated by career legislators after the Civil War?
- Do you think each state should have the right to set term limits on its federal senators and representatives? Explain.
A C T I V I T Y
In this role-play, the class will debate the merits of the following proposed constitutional amendment:
Congressional Term-Limits Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
No person shall serve in the House of Representatives more than six two-year terms.
No person shall serve in the Senate more than two six-year terms.
Term counting will begin at the first election after the amendment has been ratified.
- Divide the class into triads. Assign each student in the triads a role of supporter of term limits, opponent of term limits, or member of Congress.
- Regroup the class so they can consult with one another while preparing for the role-play. Supporters of term limits should sit on one side of the room, opponents on another side, and members of Congress in front. Supporters and opponents should think up their best arguments, and members of Congress should think of questions to ask each side.
- Redivide into triads and begin the role-play. Supporters will present their case first. Each side will have two minutes to make its presentation. The member of Congress can interrupt to ask questions. After both sides present, each member of Congress should return to his or her seat at the front of the room.
- The members of Congress should discuss and vote on the term-limits amendment.