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Law and Politics

Congressional Term Limits

To limit or not to limit?

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WHAT IT IS 

  • A term limit is a specified number of terms that a person in office is allowed to serve. [Merriam-Webster]

  • A term is the number of years the representative is allowed to serve before either reelection or end of office.

  • There is no limit on the number of terms politicians in Congress can serve.

  • Jan. 2018: According to a national poll, 82% of Americans support amending the Constitution to place term limits on members of Congress; 2016 national poll shows 74% of "likely voters" support term limits.

term limit statistic infographic

Current congressional terms, defined by the U.S. Constitution:

  • Article I, Section 2: Members of the House of Representatives serve for two years. They can then run for reelection every two years and can run indefinitely. [U.S. House of Representatives]
  • Article 1, Section 3: Senators serve for six-years. They can then run for reelection every two years and can run indefinitely. This "class" system ensures only ⅓ of the Senate is up for reelection during any election. [U.S. Senate]

  • This ability to be reelected indefinitely, as granted by the Constitution, created and supports "career politicians."

  • 15 states have enacted their own term limits. [National Conference of State Legislatures]

WHY IT MATTERS

 

CIVICS: Debating reform through term limits is not new.

 

In 1995, 23 states had passed state law or amendments to state constitutions to limit terms on their representatives and senators. [Pew Research Center]

 

The Supreme Court then intervened by ruling against term limits on members of Congress, 5-4. [The New York Times] This ruling did not impact state legislators. Today, 15 states limit how many terms lawmakers (governors) can serve. [Pew Research Center]

LIMIT THE TIME

Increase effectiveness

Supporters of term-limits argue that a limit could be an easy mechanism to improve the effectiveness of Congress. 

 

Supporters suggest term limits would allow members to spend less time worrying about donations and more time on policymaking since they know their time is limited. 

[The Brookings Institute]

 

 

Do the right thing

Congressional members may be allowed to make unpopular but necessary decisions without fear of retaliation at the ballot box since they know their term is finite. This would also lead to an avoidance of corruption.  [The Brookings Institute]

 

Supporters of term limits contend lawmakers unconcerned with reelection will reject special interest pressures in favor of crafting and voting for legislation solely based on its merits. [The Brookings Institute]

LET IT BE

Anti-Democratic

Opponents argue that establishing congressional term limits would severely hinder the democratic process. They argue a fundamental principle of the United States government is that voters get to choose their representatives, and their choices are restricted when a candidate is barred from the ballot. [The Brookings Institute]

 

 

Lack of experience

Term limits could lead to a loss of experience and institutional knowledge in Congress as a whole.

 

Limiting terms could require freshman members to complete training and gain procedural understanding, while also learning legislative acumen and an ability to collaborate and compromise with the other party - all skills that may have just left because of term limits. [The Brookings Institute]

 

Term limit opponents believe that novice legislators would look to fill their policy and knowledge gaps by relying on special interest groups and lobbyists rather than deferring to what their constituents want. [The Brookings Institute

WHERE WE ARE NOW

  • President Trump has repeatedly voiced support of congressional term limits in an effort to "drain the swamp." [The Washington Post]

  • Oct. 2019: Wisconsin Senator has proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to include term limits. Efforts have stalled.  [The Associated Press]

  • Ongoing: Grassroots efforts continue to push for representatives to take the "Term Limit Pledge".

THINGS TO THINK ABOUT

  • Could we consider elections to be informal term limits? In other words, do voters impose term limits by choosing who they vote for, or do we need something written in the law?

  • In states that have term limits, career politicians may go back and forth between the two chambers (if elected) after they have termed out in the House or Senate. 

  • Instead of imposing term limits, should we look at limiting lobbyist influence since corruption and deference to special interest groups seems to be a big concern?

  • What other policy could Congress enact to ensure better governance?

  • Presidential hopeful Tom Steyer wants to implement congressional term limits if elected. Do other candidates agree? Use our election guide to find out.

  • The Office of the United States Presidency is limited to two terms, each term is four years for a total potential of eight years. If each branch of government is equal, why is there no limit on members of Congress and on judges?

  • How long can world leaders serve? Analyze the infographic below, or read more here.

Key Vocabulary