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Term Limits: Correcting Congress

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I am becoming increasingly annoyed at members of Congress who bandy about the word “billion” when they speak about taxpayer money. Look at the poorly named Stimulus Packages under debate. Each item is all about billions, so much so that $17 billion to give one-time $300 payments to Social Security recipients does not seem like that much. With few exceptions these members, Democrat and Republican, are the same people who let Bush have his war and allowed our economy to fail. The present debate demonstrates that the members of the governing class have long since ceased to represent the constituencies which elect them.  They have come to understand that their job is only to get re-elected.  Representing the best interests of the citizen has become irrelevant to them. We need term limits.

The Founders did not intend government to be a career. They envisioned governing as a volunteer position for a set amount of time, after which it was time to go back home. They also debated limiting terms. Washington and Jefferson argued in support of term limits, while MadisoFoundersn and Hamilton opposed them. Not much came of the debate for about a hundred years, since members often voluntarily chose to leave Washington and returned home. Long-term Congressional incumbency was rare then, but the times have changed.

At present, there is only one term limit. The 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution placed a limit of two terms on Presidents in 1951. There are no term limits for Vice Presidents or members of Congress, whether Representatives or Senators. Politicians, lobbyists and special interest groups continue to combat term limits for those offices. 

Fifteen state legislatures have term limits in effect today and most have experienced a complete turnover in their membership. Term limits have prevented more than a thousand experienced legislators from running for reelection.  New legislators have to learn their jobs in less than six years, chair important committees in their first term, and even serve as Speaker of the House after just two or three years in office.  The leadership, culture and organization inside those legislatures have had to adjust to limited terms in office.  So have those who work outside the legislative halls, such as bureaucrats, governors and lobbyists.

Voter initiatives of the 1990s are responsible for states adopting legislative limits. In an online column, Wall Street Journal columnist Steve Moore wrote that “limits on politicians' time in office were enacted or reaffirmed by enormous margins nearly everywhere they were on the ballot in what might have been the loudest referendum for term limitation by voters ever.” The Republicans hopped on the bandwagon.

Many Republicans seem to have forgotten that part of their 1994 platform included term limits in Congress. For the first time in more than 40 years, they had gained a majority in the House and their platform, called the "Contract with America," included a pledge to impose term limits. They brought a constitutional amendment to the House floor which limited members of the Senate to two six-year terms and members of the House to six two-year terms. Republicans held 230 seats in the House and got a simple majority vote easily. Unfortunately for them, the two-thirds majority required for constitutional amendments was 290 votes.

The U.S. Constitution sets no term limits on congress. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution assigns to the states and their citizens all powers not reserved to the federal government. This distribution of powers is seen to create a strong constitutional opportunity for congressional term limits. The Seventeenth Amendment restates the first paragraph of Article I, section 3, of the Constitution and provides for the election of senators by replacing the phrase "chosen by the Legislature thereof" with "elected by the people thereof."

States have tried to apply term limits to members of Congress. However, in 1995, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that states cannot impose qualifications for prospective members of the U.S. Congress stricter than those specified in the Constitution. U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton [514 U.S. 779] invalidated the Congressional term limit laws of 23 states. Congress failed to achieve the required two-thirds majority needed to pass a term limit constitutional amendment and the matter did not come up again.

Calls for government reform come with the territory. Just over a hundred years ago, William Randolph Hearst championed the cause of direct eleCongressction as he expanded his publishing empire. He hired a veteran reporter named David Graham Phillips to portray Senators as pawns of industrialists and financiers. A series titled "The Treason of the Senate" appeared in several monthly issues of the magazine Cosmopolitan in 1906. Similar grassroots calls for change can be heard today, and term limits is one of their goals.

“Term Limits would also hinder corruption and the effects that lobbyists have upon the government by breaking the established connections between lobbyists and the legislators in power, and by reducing the sway future campaign donations have,” Duncan Quirk wrote recently in the Huffington Post.  “Establishing Term Limits would also promote a meritocracy by reducing the number of career politicians and the influence of political families, consequently curbing nepotism and the grooming of future politicians for office.”

Dan Greenberg, writing for the Heritage Foundation notes, “Term limits would change Congress. They are supported by large majorities of most American demographic groups; they are opposed primarily by incumbent politicians and the special interest groups which depend on them. Term limits would ameliorate many of America's most serious political problems by counterbalancing incumbent advantages, ensuring congressional turnover, securing independent congressional judgment, and reducing election-related incentives for wasteful government spending.”

You might ask about the criticism that the committee and legislative processes take many years to master. Such an argument is more about the legislative process than about the legislator. Patrick Basham, a senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute, wrote, “The bottom line is that the workings of our legislatures are far more complex than is necessary. Remember that legislatures aren't the only place to gain useful experience. The private-sector experience that many newcomers bring to term-limited legislative committees may prove more valuable for the general welfare.”

With less than a 10% turnover rate, to think that our best interests are being represented in Congress is naive.  The data does not support such a conjecture. Though the election made me tire of polls, they make two things pretty clear – we do not approve of what Congress does and we keep electing the same people. The problem is that we have effectively lost control of a true representative government that the Founders intended.  Instead we have a political class that represents itself and not the people.

We need new people in government with responsible, well thought ideas for the military and economic wars we face. Establishing term limits for members of Congress can make that happen, but it requires a Constitutional Amendment. Amendments happen when a national public movement demands it. It has been done before – Women’s Suffrage (19th Amendment, 1920), Poll Tax Barred (24th Amendment, 1964), and Voting Age set to 18 (26th Amendment, 1971) to name a few. It can happen again. Establishing Congressional term limits is not a red versus blue issue. It is a we the people versus they the governing class issue, and its time has come.

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About Tommy Mack

Tommy Mack began his career in broadcasting and is a US Army graduate of the Defense Information School. He worked in Army Public and Command Information and earned a BS in Liberal Studies from the State University of New York, Albany. A marketing communications executive, Tommy became a business management consultant for a major international consulting company and its affiliates before establishing Tommy Mack Organization, a business consulting practice specializing in organization and communications management. A professional writer and blogger, he writes about politics, business, and culture.
  • I don’t know. I am not passionate about term limits. Your arguments are sound, and you may well be right.

    However, if I might act as devil’s advocate here, I will throw out this bone:

    While you include a counter argument, it does seem that “learning the ropes” working in Congress and in DC in general can take some time. If both houses of Congress are made up largely of rookies, then who will there be to run the show? It may be that a whole new strain of functionaries – people who are NOT elected to any office – could wind up controling the reigns as it were.

    Leaving the devil to hisherits own designs, I have actually suggested that the House term of 2 years is too short. This doesn’t actually bear one way or another on term limits, but I think that the 2 year term allows for only a relatively short period when they are focusing on the job at hand and not back home raising money and campaigning. I think a 4 year term for House members would be better. They could still be limited to only 2 terms, but at least they wouldn’t be jumping ship after only a few months to go home and sniff out contributions and eat chicken ala king at fund raisers.


  • There’s no guarantee term limits will change anything but the players. The CA state legislature has had term limits for years. How’s that working out? Have you received your IOU for your state tax refund?

    What is required is a national public movement to get people involved in the process by running for office and paying attention to what is happening.

  • State tax refund… [snort]… that’ll be the day…

  • Baronius

    Novice legislators will have no control over their bureaucracies.

    Look at the result of presidential term limits. Green front men call in their party’s old-timers to supervise the civil servants. As bad as some first terms are, the second term of every administration is worse, because no one’s accountable. I don’t see why it would work better for legislatures.

  • Maurice

    Tommy Mack – great article! Well written and great links. Of course I am jaded. I agree with you 100%.

    A couple of months ago President Bush’s approval rating was 28% – Congresses was 13%! I really think term limits would help.

  • James Sutton

    I couldn’t agree more! What we are in dire need of are term limits. All one has to do is to consider what really needs to be done regarding the issues of the day, what common sense tells us needs to be done, and then look at what is being done by those we voted in to protect and direct this country. And then it becomes obvious that these needful things are being are being over looked for a reason. And that the reason must be for some self serving purpose(s), re-election? We have some excellent representatives here in Alabama but it is time that all elected representatives face limits. We as citizens can take back the government as easily as a constitutional admendment limiting terms in both houses. For instance, limit both houses to 12 years, 2 terms for the senate and 3 terms for congress. This would mean little change in existing procedures. If these individuals cannot achieve in 12 years, any goals they might have, then they really do need to go home. Oh and if any would say we might not get the “best qualified” for the job, all I have to say is please, give me a break! The inmates are already running the asylum!!

  • Steve Smith

    The idea of government by, of, and for the people is based upon citizens being elected to serve their civic duty as public servants. Not to have elected positions be a career with a salary, benefits, and a pension. I believe the root cause of 90% of the problems with federal governance is the lack of “real citizens” in federal, elected positions. I think that after 6 years of the pressure from lobbyists and special interest groups, no one could still be a “real citizen”; you would be mentally drained and physically exhausted. We would be greatly served by getting fresh blood into Congress, people who had the fire and zest to take action for solving the issues and taking appropriate action, versus trying to build a power base for decades to use for lining their pockets. After fighting the good fight for 6 years, they would have done their civic duty and earned the right to go back to their real life. I like limits on Congress of three terms of 2 years for Reps, and two terms of 3 years for Senators. Either house, 6 years total. If a person can’t get their agenda going in 6 years, they are never going to do so. Let another citizen get in there to push for solutions. I trust the average citizen’s ability and good intentions more than any of our current 535 members of Congress; but only for 6 years or less.

  • Kea Ratliff


  • leslie Damron

    I totally agree, butt pirates all the way!!!

  • Gary Barton

    I agree, but you don’t go far enough. Why should there ever be a re-election? The act of running to be re-elected detracts from the elected official doing the people’s business. I suggest a single 4 year term for the House, a single 6 year term for the Senate, and a single 6 year term for the President.

    How do you get them to pass an Amendment to remove themselves from office? They won’t!

    A Constitutional Convention is the only way.

  • There are advantages to continuous strong executive power – especially in times of need.
    Case in point – Pericles were reelected to his position twenty times in a row – to serve for twenty consecutive years – because the people thought him the most qualified to lead.

  • Ed Jones

    I like your article and agree on all points. Term limits would force senators into the open. They would not have time to limit American Liberty and trample on the Constitution.

    STOP THE AMERICAN COMMUNITY SURVEY NOW find a petion and sign before it’s too late!

  • Gary Jones

    Not a personal attack, just an observation. You plagiarized almost the whole article from the heritage foundation. At least make an effort to rephrase someone else’s thinking. Other than that I totally agree with you.