Term Limits For Legislators


When the Constitution of the United States was adopted in 1789, it was
without direction regarding term limits for legislators. At the time,
professional politicians were unheard of, and the idea of someone serving for
more than one or two terms was unlikely. So the Constitution did not formally
address the issue of term limits, although it was understood that officeholders
would limit themselves to one or two terms and then return to private life (1).
With the advent of the modern state, however, came the making of Congress as a
career, and thus the voluntary removal of oneself from office, as envisioned by
the founders, is no longer regularly undertaken in the United States Congress.
The structure of the Congress supports members who have held office for several
terms thereby undermining the idea of the citizen-legislator put forth by the
founders. Instead of citizens who will soon return to the community that
elected them, professional Congress-people spend more time in Washington than in
t heir home states, and usually make Congress their career. What has developed
in recent years, in response to congressional careerism, is the drive to impose
limits on the length of time someone may serve in Congress. Currently,
advocates of term limits are calling for two terms in the Senate, and three in
the House. It is possible, then, for a member to serve six years in the House,
twelve years in the Senate, eight years as Vice President, and eight years as
President, a total of thirty-six years. It is not unlikely, therefore, that
there will continue to be career politicians. The issue is not about total time
that one may participate in government, rather it is about how long one may
serve in a particular capacity. Term limits enjoy popular, but not political,
support, thereby polarizing the electorate and the elected. This paper will
discuss the popular support for term limits, the arguments on both sides, and
draw conclusions about the need for Congressional term limits in the United
States
Support for term limits encompasses close to three-quarters of the
American population (2). The question is why. The simple answer is that the
American people no longer trust a system they view as corrupt and biased towards
the few. But the issue is really not this simple, nor is its basis of support.
While on the surface it is corruption and bias that feed the resolve for limits,
underneath it is too complex an issue to describe so succinctly. Rather the
issue includes Congressional scandals, allegations of bribery and sexual
harassment, questionable campaign contributions, and Congressional perks such as
no-interest loans and free, reserved parking at the airport (3). "To many, it
seem[s] that one reason Congress ha[s] lost touch with ordinary people [is]
because so many members [are] in Congress too long." (4) According to Ed Crane
of the Cato Institute, "Americans want to open up the political process. They
want their fellow citizens who live and work in the real world -- the private
sector -- to represent them. Not career legislators… It would allow good people
from across the political spectrum to…participate in the political process as
candidates, even if they happen to have spent most of their life outside the
limelight in the private sector like the rest of us." (5)
Clearly voters support term limits for a variety of reasons, yet these
reasons all share a common feature: the desire for a more competitive electoral
process, and the hope that term limits will also limit corruption.
The strength of public support for term limits can be seen in the fact
that several states voted to limit the length of time their representatives can
serve in Congress. By the middle of 1995, almost half of the states had limited
the number of terms for their representatives. This success of the term limit
movement at the grass roots level faced a serious setback when the Supreme Court
ruled in a 5-4 majority that such restrictions were unconstitutional. They
argued that "allowing individual States to craft their own qualifications for
Congress would thus erode the structure envisioned by the Framers, a structure
that was designed…to form a ‘more perfect union'."(6) The citizens and the
state are at the mercy, therefore, of Congress in terms of implementing limits.
Congress must decide to amend the Constitution. Since members of
Congress face a conflict of interest on the issue of term limits, supporters of
this initiative are going to have to become more creative in their lobbying. An
example of how states may