Term Limits? Not Again!


It is a bromide by now to say that the voters last November were in an anti-incumbency frame of mind. Not only did they turn out the sitting President, but in at least fourteen states they approved measures to limit the tenure of the men and women they send to Congress. All those states would now permit no more than two 6-year terms to senators. The cap on service in the House varied, from six years to twelve.


It’s not clear whether these measures will withstand a Supreme Court scrutiny of their constitutionality. Or whether they are only a first wave or a passing spasm. Some observers have already noted the paradox that most sitting members who ran were re-elected. The urge to mandate “throwing the bums out” seemed to apply only to the bums of someone else’s district. Perhaps the government-bashing storms of the eighties will eventually yield to a sunnier day when the electorate is more tolerant of its chosen servants.

But such an era of goodwill toward Washington is not likely to come soon or last forever. Term limitation is an old issue. It was raised in the Constitutional Convention, it has surfaced throughout our history, with increasing frequency in modern times, and it is not likely to go away. For a sample of the data, file this fact among things you never knew, reader: In the very first Congress of the United States, proposals were made (and defeated) to restrict representatives to serving only six consecutive years in any eight-year period. The issue thereafter lay dormant for a long time and was replaced by efforts to change the Constitution in an opposite direction, to allow House members a longer term than two years so they could benefit by experience and avoid frequent campaigning. Proposed amendments to this effect were introduced in almost every Congress after 1869. There were sixty-four between 1929 and 1963.

In that same 1929–63 period, however, nine attempts were made to restrict the number of terms that could be served on the Hill. The issue re-emerged strongly, as part of a growing challenge to the obstructive power of seniority in Congress, especially from Chief Executives who felt obstructed. In 1951 President Truman proposed a twelve-year limit on service in both the House and the Senate (coupled with an increase in the House term to four years). In 1963 former President Eisenhower endorsed the same idea, and President Kennedy, asked for comment, prudently said that it was “the sort of proposal I may advance in a post-presidential period, but not right now.” Ironically, of course, it was in Truman’s term that the Twenty-second Amendment was passed, limiting future Presidents to two terms. Sent out to the states by the Republican Eightieth Congress (1947–48), it was widely viewed as a posthumous slap at Franklin D. Roosevelt. It rebounded to later Republican disadvantage when it barred Eisenhower and Reagan, two Presidents as popular as FDR, from running a third time.

Still, it can’t all be blamed on the Eightieth Congress. Three-quarters of the states, between 1947 and 1951, were willing to ratify the amendment. What is more, at least twenty-nine states currently restrict the number of terms that their own governors may serve. Curbing Executives is a powerful tradition. But when it comes to forcing lawmakers—and particularly members of Congress—to step down, the will to do so is less urgent.

The reason is basic and built in. A senator or representative who has been in office for many years is, as critics claim, in danger of becoming a detached and privileged figure, but by that same token he (or, latterly, she) is also likely to be experienced, influential, and in a much better position to serve the needs of the district than a novice. For all those reasons, incumbents are often deservedly popular and handily win re-election. Thus there is and always will be a tension between the need for new blood and fresh ideas in a people’s government, on one hand, and the need for experienced leadership, on the other.

The Founding Fathers knew the problem and wrestled with it untiringly in Philadelphia. They were particularly unsure about the President—whether to give him a short term, requiring a frequent renewal of popular support, or a long but nonrenewable one. In the end they decided against term limits, perhaps on the logic expressed by Madison in a 1783 letter: “It takes away one powerful motive to a faithful and useful administration, the desire of…a re-appointment.” Or they believed, with Gouverneur Morris, that compulsory rotation provided “a political school in which we were always governed by the scholars and not by the masters.” It was George Washington who blunted the effect of the convention’s decision when he set the 144-year-long “no third term” precedent by retiring in 1796. But he never intended to lock the practice on his successors.

The framers likewise decided against term restrictions for members of Congress, though some delegates saw problems with a Beltway mentality long before there was a Beltway. Charles Pinckney argued for shortening the term of senators because a long one would “fix” them “at the seat of government,” where they would “lose sight of the states they represent.” Elbridge Gerry did not even want to trust representatives out of sight of the voters for two years; he fought unsuccessfully for annual House elections, a positively frightening prospect given the cost of canvassing today.