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Term Limits? Not Again!

June 2024
6min read

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.

For the first eighty years of national life, however, there was almost no problem of perennial incumbency on the Hill. The federal government was small, and Congress was in session only a few months a year, so the members—especially the representatives—maintained businesses and professions that they were happy to cultivate fulltime after a short period of congressional service. They were truly citizen-legislators, comparable to the volunteer officers who led their fellow citizen-soldiers in America’s wars. But after the biggest of those wars, in 1865, things began to change.

As the country grew, so did the tasks of governing, and inevitably Congress was forced to become more professional. Committees grew in number and in power to manage the flow of legislation. Staffs were enlarged. The legislator’s job became more complex, time-consuming, and demanding but also more challenging and attractive as a career. The average length of House service doubled to eight years, and by 1901 incumbents outnumbered freshmen by a large margin. Repeated efforts were now made to amend the Constitution and lengthen the House term on the ground that it took a new member a year to start learning the ropes, followed by a year in which he had to concentrate on running again. Between 1964 and 1971 forty-four term-stretching resolutions were introduced. President Johnson urged the idea in his State of the Union address in 1966. President Nixon backed it in 1973. In the current state of low popular esteem for Congress, this is hard to imagine, but that is how quickly popular moods change.

Yet signs of the shift were on the horizon twenty years ago. In the Ninety-second Congress (1971–72) three resolutions were introduced to limit the number of terms a representative might serve. Eleven more were proposed in the next two Congresses. The focus was shifting from concern that the length of a term was too short to anxiety that the overall length of a member’s stay in office was too long. In the Ninety-fifth Congress, hearings were held (in March of 1978) on two Senate resolutions that, if turned into amendments, would have limited senators to two complete terms and representatives to seven. Two of the senators who testified in favor, interestingly, were Dennis DeConcini and John C. Danforth, both freshmen then but still there these fifteen years later. A number of political scientists also spoke to the issue, most of them then against the idea. The testimony reads as if it were written last week; one of the anti-limitation witnesses said that the proposed amendment “fits in rather well with the anti-politician rhetoric. It suggests that if you serve around here for more than 12 years something is unclean about it and something is unclean about you.”

President Johnson proposed extending the House term in his State of the Union address in 1966. Nixon backed the same idea in 1973.

That feeling was encouraged and grew in succeeding years for a number of now familiar reasons, among them the increasing sense of frustration with the mounting public debt and the apparent gridlock in government. The term-limitation movement gathered headway on the strength of charges that the problem lay with members of Congress so eager to perpetuate their jobs that they could not say no to a spending measure or yes to a curb on some special interest. There is, of course, a political aspect to such indictments, which tended to come largely from Republican sources campaigning against the power of a perennially Democratic-led Congress. That does not in itself, naturally, make them more or less true.

No one asked me, but I would not vote for congressional term limits myself, mostly because I am not convinced that integrity, courage, and large-mindedness will somehow flourish in a “lame duck” member of Congress if those qualities haven’t been present to begin with. The second-term record of Presidents since 1951 does not suggest otherwise. Nor do I like voters tying their own hands. But of course, I could be wrong. I am not wrong, however, in warning that the “lesson of history” is that we have not heard the last of this. Campaign rhetoric aside, government is here to stay, and the day for the capable amateur in government, as in almost any other field, is over. We will have to go on choosing between giving our leaders enough power to be effective and not enough to threaten our liberties, knowing all the while that they will be, like us, men and women and not angels. The term-limitation fight is just one more scene in an ongoing drama of government by the people.

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