Congressional Term Limits – Top 3 Pros and Cons

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The executive branch of the U.S. government is the only federal branch with a term limit, though only for the president who may only serve two four-year terms. The vice president may serve various presidents for unlimited four-year terms. The U.S. Constitution also stipulates how terms are counted in times of emergency. If a vice president assumes the presidency due to the health, death, impeachment, or resignation of the predecessor, and serves more than two years of the predecessor’s remaining term, those years count as one term in office, meaning the new president could serve, if elected, only one additional term. However, if fewer than two years remain on the predecessor’s term,  the new president  may serve, if elected, two additional four-year terms. 

George Washington set a de facto term limit for the presidency by deciding not to run for a third term in 1796 (he thought his health too poor). This precedent stood until 1940 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt won a third term in the midst of World War II. Roosevelt served four consecutive terms, dying only a few months into his fourth term in Apr. 1945. Under President Harry Truman, Roosevelt’s vice president and successor, the 22nd Amendment was ratified on Feb. 27, 1951, restricting presidents to two terms. [1]

The justices of the Supreme Court (the judicial branch) are appointed for life, “during good Behaviour,” according to Article III, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, and are not subject to term limits. 

In the legislative branch, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate (collectively called Congress), representatives may serve unlimited two-year terms and senators unlimited six-year terms. The U.S. Constitution merely establishes the requirements for representatives (at least 25 years old, a U.S. citizen for at least seven years, and a resident of the state they represent) and for senators (at least 30 years old, a U.S. citizen for at least nine years, and a resident of the state they represent).

While the U.S. Congress has never been subject to term limits, its governmental forefather was. Following the ancient Greek tradition of rotational representation—as Aristotle instructed, “Rule of all over each and each over all”—the Articles of Confederation (1781–89), which governed the country between the two famed Continental Congresses (neither of which had term limits) and the U.S. Constitution, stated “no person shall be capable of being a delegate for more than three years in any [Confederation] term of six years.” The proviso, while debated by the Founding Fathers, did not make it into the U.S. Constitution. Theories about why vary among historians: the idea that long-serving members would be more able to navigate the job; that the norm of voluntarily leaving after a term or two wouldn’t change; and a lack of consensus among the Founders about how long the limits should be was a factor, too. [2] [3]

Legislative efforts to impose constitutional term limits in Congress date to 1789, the year Congress first convened, when Representative Thomas Tucker of Charleston, South Carolina, proposed one-year Senate terms with a limit of five years in any six-year period and two-year House terms with a limit of six years in any eight-year period. The proposal was shelved and never made it to committee, largely putting the issue to rest (thanks to the voluntary rotation of congressmen) until the 1940s when presidential term limits were debated due to Roosevelt’s re-elections. [2] [3]

Congressional term limits were first debated in a Senate subcommittee in Sep. 1945, with S.J. Res. 21, which would have limited the president, vice president, and members of Congress to six years of service. And since the 1940s, there have been many term-limit proposals introduced in Congress, but none has passed into law. [3]

The 1980s and 1990s saw the debate move to the states. Utah (1983) and South Dakota (1989) passed resolutions that called for a constitutional convention on federal congressional term limits. 23 states had passed congressional term limits laws by mid-1995. [2] [30]

In 1994, the issue went to the Supreme Court in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton. The case involved a 1993 amendment to Arkansas’ state constitution that imposed term limits for that state’s U.S. representatives and senators. In 1995 the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in a 5-4 vote that “states cannot impose additional restrictions, such as term limits, on its representatives in the federal government beyond those provided by the Constitution.” As a result of the Supreme Court ruling, congressional term limits may only be imposed via constitutional amendment. [5] [6]

During the Supreme Court hearings, Republicans in the House were simultaneously trying to pass such legislation. Term limits were included in the Republicans’ 1994 “Contract with America,” which outlined legislation to be enacted in the first 100 days of the Republican-controlled 104th Congress (1995–96). However, the term limit joint resolution that followed in 1995–H.J.Res. 73, calling for a constitutional amendment limiting senators to two terms and representatives to six (meaning a limit of 12 years for either representatives or senators)–received only a simple majority support, not the supermajority (two-thirds) vote needed to pass the House. Several other term-limit bills were proposed in both houses of Congress but similarly died. [4] [7] [8]

If congressional term limits were to be approved either by two-thirds (a supermajority) of Congress or by a constitutional convention, the proposal would then need to be ratified by three-fourths (38 of 50) of the states or elected state conventions to become a law and an amendment to the Constitution.

Should Term Limits Be Imposed on U.S. Senators and Representatives?

Pro 1

Americans overwhelmingly support term limits, and that desire should be reflected in our democracy.

According to a Mar. 2023 poll by the Program for Public Consultation (PPC), some 83% of registered voters support an amendment for congressional term limits. And the support is overwhelmingly bipartisan: 86% of Republicans, 84% of Independents, and 80% of Democrats. Further, the support has been unwavering since PPC first asked the question in 2017. [8]

Similarly, a Sep. 2023 Pew survey found that 87% of adults favored congressional term limits with 56% strongly favoring them. [11]

Even in our time of highly contentious, polarizing partisan politics, Americans of all political stripes agree.

What is also clear, given Congress’s failure to pass any term limits bill in over two centuries, is that career members of Congress do not support such limits. As of June 2023, only 112 of the 435 representatives and 21 of 100 senators pledged to support a congressional term limits amendment. That’s well below the 290 representatives and 67 senators needed for a supermajority to pass such limits. Clearly, our representatives will not self-impose limits on their power. Such restraints will have to be imposed on them. [12]

Even congressional members who say they support term limits do not practice what they preach. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) sponsored S.J. Res 2 in Jan. 2023, which would limit senate terms to two, the fourth time he’s sponsored such a bill. Meanwhile, Cruz is running for re-election in 2024 for his third term. When asked about the disconnect between his campaign and his support for term limits, Cruz replied, “I’ve never said I’m going to unilaterally comply…. I will be more than happy to comply by the same rules that apply for everyone.” [13]

A democracy should reflect the will of the people, not the will of career lawmakers.

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Pro 2

Term limits would make representatives more responsive to their constituents.

The Program for Public Consultation (PPC) found in a 2023 poll that 87% of registered voters (including 90% of Republicans, 88% of Independents, and 84% of Democrats) agree that “because incumbents are so secure, they don’t need to be attentive to their constituents and increasingly lose touch with the people back home. If we were to have term limits, we would have more open-seat races in which both candidates would really have to earn the votes of the people, including by paying attention to their views.” [8]

Adds Senator Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), who supports term limits, “Too often, Senators and Members of Congress become out of touch with the rest of the country when they find themselves in Washington for too long. Congress was designed to be a body representative of the people, so ensuring we have elected officials who truly understand what it is to work, raise a family and live their lives in their home districts is essential.” [14]

Career members of Congress also tend to be much older than their constituents. The 118th Congress (2023-2025) is one of the oldest in American history. The median age for senators is 65 and for representatives it’s 58, and the age of members is steadily increasing. Meanwhile, the median age for Americans is 38.2. [15]

As a result, Representative Dean Phillips (D-MN) called for “generational diversity” in Congress, because “when we have too many members that are around for 30, 40, sometimes 50 years, we are literally precluding participation [of younger citizens]. And I believe the United States is facing a crisis of participation in its politics.” A limitation on terms, he argues, “opens doors for younger generations to become public servants” and “changes the behavior of outgoing members of Congress who feel liberated to vote their conscience and not necessarily their party line.” [15]

“Civic-minded legislators owe it to their constituents, present and future, to create a system that is more inclined and capable of responding to the needs and desires of the population. And voters would be doing themselves and their children a huge favour by demanding greater accountability from their elected officials and supporting efforts to reform our institutions accordingly,” argues Harvard University government lecturer Christopher Rhodes. [16]

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Pro 3

Term limits would ensure that Congress is composed of people with real-world expertise, not career politicians.

Political writer William Natbony summarized Congress without term limits as a “paradigm of careerism, combining power, stature and influence with lavish benefits: a high salary; unparalleled business connections; limited working days; spectacular working conditions; periodic taxpayer-funded fact-finding trips; a sizable staff (that could include family and friends); exceptional medical, dental and retirement benefits; weakened insider trading rules; taxpayer funded legal expenses; the ability to moonlight at other jobs; free flights back and forth to the lawmaker’s home state; a family death gratuity; and free parking.” [17]

Accordingly, argued the group U.S. Term Limits in 2024, “Washington [D.C.] is run in a top-down structure where seniority equals influence. Even if we vote in better members, they are still buried under the power of [Representative Nancy] Pelosi and [Senator Chuck] Schumer. Term limits would replace seniority with a merit system…. As Ronald Reagan said, the only experience you get in politics is how to be political. The problem with Congress is we have too much political experience and not enough from the real world. A physician has a better handle on healthcare policy than a career politician, or a teacher has a better handle on education policy, and so on. Term limits would give people with real world experience the chance to serve and make an impact.” [18]

We cannot simply rely on elections as de facto term limits. When an incumbent member of Congress runs for re-election, they are more likely to win thanks to name recognition and fundraising relationships ready to fill the coffers. In fact, between 1964 and 2022, House incumbents were re-elected 93% of the time, while Senate incumbents were re-elected 83% of the time. In 2022, 94.5% of incumbent representatives and 100% of incumbent senators were re-elected. [8] [19]

Open elections would give voters more say in the electoral process, more control of our democracy, and a diversity of candidates, not just politicians with name-recognition, a shot at governing.

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Con 1

Term limits would destabilize the legislative branch.

With term limits, Congress would be perpetually full of lame-duck members, making the legislative branch incredibly ineffective.

During lame-duck sessions, outgoing members of Congress simply ride out the term before a new member replaces them–they are less likely to vote at all, and when they do vote, they are less likely to vote in accordance with the wishes of their constituents or their party. Members are more prone to vote in favor of their next employer’s wishes, and in many cases this employer is a lobbyist or lobbying group. [20]

While the effect of lame-duck sessions is currently small because most members are re-elected, with the imposition of term limits Congress would be in a near permanent lame-duck state, destabilizing the country’s ability to pass legislation at all, much less in line with the wishes of American citizens.

Further, “states that have [legislator] term limits have had faster hyperpartisan polarization because one of the ways in which polarization has accelerated is through turnover in office, that new people who come in tend to be more extreme and more partisan than the people they replace,” notes Lee Drutman, senior fellow at the New America Think Tank. [21] [22]

Contributing to the hyperpartisanship is the growing lack of human relationships in Congress. “Bob Dole [Republican Representative for eight years and a Senator for 27] and Ted Kennedy [Democratic Senator for almost 47 years], they built up a relationship over time. And if you don’t have relationships, it’s very easy to demonize the other person…. It’s a lot harder to demonize the other person when you actually know them as a human being. And I worry… in a term limited environment, there’s even less relationship building than there is now, and there’s precious little of it right now,” says Gerald Seib former executive Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. [21]

Hyperpartisanship and demonization undercut the probability of bipartisan cooperation that is necessary to get things done in Congress.

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Con 2

Voters and the government both benefit from experienced members in Congress.

Congress is unlike other jobs. Learning the ways laws are written and passed, building the relationships across party lines (and within political factions within parties) that are necessary to propose and pass legislation, and communicating effectively with constituents back home require very specialized knowledge—there’s a large learning curve to all of this. Most first- and second-term members rely on those who have served longer to learn how to navigate the job.

Thus, term limits would spur exactly the opposite of what proponents of such limits want: more inefficient lawmaking. “The workhorses in Congress know the value of having been there for a long time and they know how to make public policy better because of the expertise they have and the care they’ve taken to build relationships with other members,” explains Philip Wallach, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. [23]

According to the Center for Effective Lawmaking, the representatives who got the most work done (including committee work and sponsoring legislation) in the 117th Congress (2021-23) from each party were Gerald Connolly (D-VA), who is serving his eighth term, and Don Bacon (R-NE), who is serving his fourth. The most effective senators were Gary Peters (D-MI), who is serving his 2nd term, and John Cornyn (R-TX), who is serving his 4th. Of the ten most effective members of each major party and each house (40 members total), 33 have already exceeded term-limit proposals and Peters, the most effective Democratic Senator, would be ousted after his current term expires in 2027. [23] [24]

This “brain drain” would mean “fewer experienced policymakers in Congress [which] results in increased influence of special interests that are ready and willing to fill the issue-specific information voids,” says Casey Burgat of George Washington University. [12]

With term limits, not only could lobbyists pounce on members of Congress due to their lack of expertise, they could also entice them with a new job–jobs that are more lucrative and long-lasting–given the members’ limited time in their current positions. As journalist Albert Hunt notes, with term limits, “members of Congress, knowing their time is limited, are easier prey for vested interests…. The revolving door would keep revolving.” [25]

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Con 3

We already have term limits—they’re called elections.

Looming large in the public imagination are leaders like Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) who served for 47 years, 5 months, and 8 days, leaving the Senate at 100 years old as the oldest serving Senator to date; Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) who has the longest Senate tenure to date at 51 years, 5 months, 26 days (which excludes his six years as a Representative); and Representative John Dingell, Jr. (D-MI) who served for just over 59 years, spanning presidents Eisenhower to Obama. [26] [27]

However, the vast majority of congressional members do not serve such exhaustive terms. The average length of service completed at the opening of the 118th Congress (2023-2025) was 8.5 years for representatives and 11.2 years for senators. Many term-limit proposals would limit both houses to 12 years of service, something already accomplished by our electoral system. [28]

Only 23% of the current House of Representatives and 43% of the Senate have more than 12 years of service. Voters have clearly made their preferences known by not re-electing the majority of representatives and senators for more than 12 years, while keeping those members of congress they find effective. [28]

“Term limits are based on the arrogant assumption that the voters are incapable of deciding who they want to represent them in Congress. Term limits have failed to assure that any elected official is more wise, more honest or more energetic because he is incapable of running for reelection. Logic and experience prove the opposite. Any Congressman who is made ineligible for reelection by term limits feels no restraints upon his behavior, since he will not face the voters again at the next election to answer for his conduct,” explains Idaho’s Save the Constitution Committee. [29]

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Discussion Questions

1. Should Congress be subject to term limits? If yes, what term limits would you impose and why? If no, explain your answer.

2. Should the U.S. Supreme Court have term limits? Why or why not?

3. Should other government positions be subject to term limits? Consider congressional staff, even the White House chef. Explain your answers. 

Take Action

1. Consider the pro position of the organization U.S. Term Limits

2. Explore the history of congressional term limits with John David Rausch, Jr

3. Analyze Andrew W. C. Myers’ position that term limits lead to polarization. 

4. Consider how you felt about the issue before reading this article. After reading the pros and cons on this topic, has your thinking changed? If so, how? List two to three ways. If your thoughts have not changed, list two to three ways your better understanding of the “other side of the issue” now helps you better argue your position.

5. Push for the position and policies you support by writing US national senators and representatives.

Sources

1.Constitutional Center, “On This Day: Term Limits for American Presidents,” constitutioncenter.org, Feb. 27, 2023
2.John David Rausch, Jr., “When a Popular Idea Meets Congress: The History of the Term Limit Debate in Congress,” Politics, Bureaucracy & Justice, wtamu.edu, 2009
3.Senate Report 104-158, “Congressional Term Limits,” govinfo.gov, Oct. 17, 1995
4.R. Sam Garrett and L. Paige Whitaker, “Term Limits for Members of Congress: Policy and Legal Overview,” crsreports.congress.gov, Mar. 10, 2023
5.Justia, “U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779 (1995),” supreme.justia.com (accessed Feb. 5, 2024)
6.Oyez, “U. S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton,” oyez.org (accessed Feb. 5, 2024)
7.Congress, “H.J.Res.73 – Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of the United States with Respect to the Number of Terms of Office of Members of the Senate and the House of Representatives,” congress.gov, 1995-1996
8.Program for Public Consultation, “Term Limits for Members of Congress: A National Survey of Registered Voters,” publicconsultation.org, Mar. 2023
9.Common Cause, “Stopping a Dangerous Article V Convention,” commoncause.org (accessed Feb. 7, 2024)
10.Convention of States, conventionofstates.com (accessed Feb. 7, 2024)
11.Pew Research Center, “Americans’ Dismal Views of the Nation’s Politics,” pewresearch.org, Sep. 19, 2023
12.Andrew Dorn, “Americans on Both Sides of the Aisle Want Congressional Term Limits,” newsnationnow.com, Aug. 31, 2023
13.Martin Pengelly, “Ted Cruz Wants Two-Term Limit for Senators – and a Third Term for Himself,” theguardian.com, Feb. 5, 2023
14.Ted Cruz, “Sen. Cruz Introduces Constitutional Amendment to Impose Term Limits for Congress,” cruz.senate.gov, Jan. 23, 2023
15.Rachel Treisman, “As Congress Gets Older, One Lawmaker Makes the Case for More ‘Generational Diversity,’” npr.org, Sep. 14, 2023
16.Christopher Rhodes, “The US Doesn’t Need Age Limits – It Needs Term Limits,” aljazeera.com, July 7, 2023
17.William Natbony, “Ted Cruz Is Right!,” thefulcrum.us, Aug. 13, 2021
18.U.S. Term Limits, “Why Term Limits,” termlimits.com (accessed Feb. 12, 2024)
19.Open Secrets, “Reelection Rates over the Years,” opensecrets.org (accessed Feb. 12, 2024)
20.Christopher Koopman, Matthew D. Mitchell, and Emily Hamilton, “How Lame Are Lame Ducks?,” mercatus.org, 2016
21.Baker School of Public Policy and Public Affairs, “You Might Be Right - Term Limits - Transcript,” baker.utk.edu, May 2023
22.Andrew C. W. Myers, “Why Do Term Limits Polarize State Legislatures?,” andrewcwmyers.com, Sep. 26, 2023
23.Nick Mourtoupalas, Derek Hawkins and Hannah Dormido, “Term Limits Would Upend Congress As We Know It,” washingtonpost.com, Sep. 16, 2023
24.Craig Volden and Alan Wiseman, “Highlights from the New 117th Congress Legislative Effectiveness Scores,” thelawmakers.org (accessed Feb. 8, 2024)
25.Albert Hunt, “Term Limits Wouldn’t Clean Up Congress — They Could Make Things Worse,” thehill.com, Apr. 30, 2023
26.U.S. Senate, “Longest-Serving Senators,” senate.gov, Jan. 24, 2024
27.U.S. House of Representatives History, Art, & Archives, “Record Holders,” history.house.gov (accessed Feb. 8, 2024)
28.Sarah J. Eckman and Amber Hope Wilhelm, “Congressional Careers: Service Tenure and Patterns of Member Service, 1789-2023,” Jan. 17, 2023
29.Idaho Secretary of State, “Argument AGAINST of Proposition One,” sos.odaho.gov (accessed Feb. 9, 2024)
30.U.S. Government Publishing Office, "Report 105-2: Congressional Term Limits Amendment," congress.gov, Feb. 6, 1997