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Should There Be Term - Limits For Members of Congress?

Civil Rights Policy Brief #197 | By: Rodney A. Maggay | November 17, 2022

Header photo taken from: J. Scott Applewhite, The Associated Press

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Policy Summary

The United States Constitution describes the qualifications a person must have in order to be eligible to be a Representative in Article One, Section Two, Clause Two. And for Senators, the qualifications are described in Article One, Section Three, Clause Two. Minimum age limits and minimum years of citizenship, among other qualifications, are listed. But the last few decades have seen an interest in adding an interesting limitation – term limits for Members of Congress.

While Members of the House of Representatives and Senators can serve for multiple terms that sometimes go on for decades, the concept of term limits for federal officials is not new to the U.S. Constitution. The Twenty – Second Amendment to the Constitution provides in Section One that “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice[.]” And around the U.S. at the state level, term limits is considered the norm. 

As of 2022, thirty – seven (37) states have imposed some form of term – limits on the office of Governor while sixteen states have some term limits on their state legislative officials. And among city and local officials, research by the non – profit group U.S. Term Limits has shown that 9 of the 10 largest U.S. cities has a form of term limits for their city council and mayoral officials.

So, should there be some form of term limits for Members of Congress?

Image taken from: Pew Research Center

Policy Analysis

In order to make sense of where the issue of term limits stands today, it is important to understand how we got to this point. Since the adoption of the Constitution in the 1700’s, the document has been silent on term limits. Through the years, it simply became accepted that a person could be re-elected as often as their constituents would allow. After the unprecedented four terms of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Americans decided that no one should be elected President for more than two terms and the Twenty – Second Amendment to the Constitution was added. 

The issue shifted to Congress and whether term limits should be imposed on its members. A number of states began exploring the issue and soon, the issue made its way to referendums and ballot initiatives for citizens to vote and decide the issue. Many of the measures passed, imposing term limits on officials for state office and federal legislators representing the state.

However, the Supreme Court stepped in and halted the trend as it applied to federal legislative officials. In the 1995 case U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, the Court ruled that states could not add additional qualifications on their federal legislative representatives. States could add restrictions to their state officials but had to go through the constitutional amendment process if they wanted to add term limits for their Representatives and Senators. Surprisingly, right leaning Justice Clarence Thomas and more moderate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor agreed in a dissent that states should have the right to impose term limits on their federal legislators. 

The issue eventually became a cause that many Republicans championed. It even became part of their messaging in the 1994 mid – term elections. A bill proposing a constitutional term limits amendment was eventually introduced in 1995 and garnered 227 votes (227 – 204), which was short of the required 290 to continue the amendment process.

In the aftermath of the 2022 midterm elections, should there be term limits for Members of Congress? The results of the midterms showed that there are many people in Congress who have served for the past number of decades. 

Rep. Nancy Pelosi has been a Congresswoman since 1987. Sen. Patrick Leahy has been the Senator from Vermont since 1975. And even though he was not on the ballot in 2022, Sen. Mitch McConnell was first elected in 1984. While these members and others from both sides of the aisle have contributed a number of accomplishments, their long tenures has contributed to the political gridlock that currently plagues Washington, D.C. It has become difficult to propose and encourage new ideas and have Congress see things from a different point of view. 

Chart taken from: Pew Research Center

(click or tap to enlargen)

And in the current political climate, no one seeks to find middle ground on issues or try to reach for compromises. No politician wants to give in or lose on an issue and sometimes they simply decide it would be better to do nothing at all to preserve their seat. 

With the Senate looking it may be headed to another 50 – 50 split, maybe term limits could have helped break that tie by forcing entrenched candidates out and allowing new candidates in who could better appeal to voters. And, by knowing that they would serve for a definite period of time, term limits could make new candidates more beholden to their local constituents instead of trying to conform to a political party’s national message.

Term limits is not a dead issue. Just this month, North Dakota passed an amendment imposing term limits on state officials. And in Congress, a new bill was just introduced by Rep. Mayra Flores from Texas for a constitutional amendment imposing term limits. (Sen. Ted Cruz introduced the Senate version of the bill). This could be the issue that might help break the political gridlock in Washington. Another interesting twist that could be considered is changing the length of a term for Representatives and Senators. 

Some proposals consider changing a Representative’s two year term to four or maybe even staggering seats as is done in the Senate. Proposals for Senators have suggested one eight year term and others that suggest a term less than the current six. While these are bold proposals, a longer or shorter term might not mean much unless some form of term limits are implemented. Any change in the length of a term has to be accompanied with term limits.

 

With the increasing number of term limit laws at the state level and bipartisan support in Congress, now is the time to give this issue another look as it applies to Congressional Representatives and Senators. LEARN MORE

This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact rodwood@email.com.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

U.S. Term Limits – non – profit group advocating for term limits for Members of Congress.

Heritage Foundation – older 1994 article laying out the rationale for Congressional term limits.

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