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The Case for Congressional Term Limits

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The President of the United States is sometimes called the leader of the free world. Yet many people believe that Congress has as much (or more) power than the president. Congress, after all, is responsible for passing the laws that shape our country. Only Congress can declare war. Congress is meant to serve as a counterweight, if need be, to the president. Neither can act without the other’s cooperation.

Since Franklin D. Roosevelt, the presidency has been wisely limited to two terms. Term limits are advantageous to everyone. It lends urgency to the political party in power and hope to the opposition. Term limits guarantee no one can remain in office indefinitely, despite the money and power at their disposal. Term limits force us out of our apathy by requiring us to pick a new leader. This safeguard is missing in Congress. The House of Representatives and the Senate have no term limits. They argue that voters can choose new representation every election cycle. If Americans want to replace their representation, they only need to vote for a new candidate. If they vote the same people into office, they must be satisfied.

This is misleading. Americans are deeply dissatisfied with and distrustful of Congress. President George W. Bush’s approval rating of 23% looks wildly popular when compared to the single digit ratings Congress routinely garners. We allow incompetent and destructive people to become fixtures in Congress, because we feel helpless against their entrenched power. When Congress gave (not loaned) the financial industry over 700 billion dollars of taxpayer money, the Americans who earned that money were wondering how to make ends meet. While Americans lie awake at night worrying about the stability of their jobs and the threat of foreclosure, Congress endorses unfair trade agreements at our expense. We feel betrayed, but raising the groundswell of support and money to get a more suitable candidate into office is often beyond the reach of ordinary people. For these reasons, the only fair and democratic solution is to impose term limits on Congress.

Over the years, the citizens of the United States have repeatedly demanded that term limits be imposed. We have pursued the traditional avenues to amend the law. The usual way to pass an amendment is through Congress. Unsurprisingly, the majority of people in these lucrative congressional jobs are unwilling to curtail their own power in the interest of the nation. The people then went to the states. In the early 1990s, a major referendum to impose congressional term limits was on the ballot in 23 states. It passed by an enormous margin with the voters. In May of 1995, however, the U.S. Supreme Court defied the will of the people and ruled that states cannot impose term limits on Congress. Finally, the citizens turned to the lawmakers themselves. Many Republicans eagerly offered to self-impose term limits, but the majority of Democrats didn’t bother with the charade. Voters gave these candidates the benefit of the doubt, and many were elected to Congress by a narrow margin. Once established in Congress, most of these candidates, such as Tim Johnson (R-IL) and Paul Wellstone (D-MI) unblinkingly went back on their promises and sought reelection.

The traditional means of preserving the integrity of Congress have been exhausted. Yet in the interest of the people and of our country, we must insist on congressional term limits. Grassroots groups like termlimits.org have sprung up in response to the public outcry. The recent election of Barack Obama illustrates the power a grassroots organization can have when the people passionately support the cause. While I support these measures, I propose we go another step forward, and put the sitting Congress on notice. Until term limits are imposed by law, we will vote against every incumbent. No one should serve more than one term until we find a Congress that is honorable enough to return power to the people. Our nation deserves to be ruled by its citizens, not career politicians.

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About Ruby Lee

  • Harriet

    this is ridiculus, it’s their careers to be lawmakers, just like other people are accountants or doctors. what do you want, plumbers and housewives taking turns making your laws?

  • Cindy D

    Only Congress can declare war. Congress is meant to serve as a counterweight, if need be, to the president. Neither can act without the other’s cooperation.

    Uh yea, right, sure.

  • Cindy D

    Ruby,

    Did you ever wonder whether the dead people cared whether a war was declared or informal?

    What about the secret war against the third world that was waged without congressional knowledge starting in 1947 with the CIA?

  • Ruby Lee

    Cindy… Whether a lawmakers is an ordinary citizen or a career politician, they can’t do anything about a war they are unaware of.

    Oh, and yeah, Harriet. I would MUCH rather have plumbers and housewives taking turns making laws than being told what to do by people who have nothing in common with the average American.

  • Cindy D

    Forgive me Ruby.

    Everyone seems to be dissatisfied with the government. And yet it seems like living in a 100 degree room and moving from the sofa to the dining room to the bedroom hoping that by shifting things around, something will make you feel cooler.

    When the problem is that its 100 degrees. Nothing will change that unless you open the window or go outside.

    We are governed by the whims of people with enormous capital and influence. Shifting the terms of their pawns around doesn’t seem likely to result in much of a decrease in temperature.

    The air conditioner is broken.

  • Clavos

    what do you want, plumbers and housewives taking turns making your laws?

    Yes, actually.

  • Cindy D

    I’d like to be making my own laws thanks. But, if I had to have someone else making them I would definitely go with the plumbers and housewives.

    Even if they don’t have “content”.

  • Cindy D

    Ruby,

    How do you fry a pickle?

  • Ruby Lee

    To be truthful, I don’t. I am not what you would call “a culinary talent.” But I do enjoy EATING fried pickles. I highly recommend them!

  • Cindy D

    Heh,

    Fair enough. Maybe I will get that opportunity some day. :-)

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    “Neither can act without the other’s cooperation.”

    Are you not counting executive orders and veto-proof majorities?

    “Term limits guarantee no one can remain in office indefinitely”

    We already have a guarantee and it’s called voting. People need to get off their behinds and organize not just wait until the system forces someone out. And the replacement from the party will likely just be a carbon copy of who they put up before. There will be no radical chance unless the people get actively involved. Besides, if I think someone is doing a good job, why should I not be allowed to vote for them because of some arbitrary limit imposed?

    Sorry, but you didn’t make your case.

  • Arch Conservative

    Harriet deserves a cyber smack for her comment.

  • Ruby Lee

    El Bicho – I do agree with you that voters ought to be vigilant, and hold incumbent lawmakers accountable. That would be ideal – unfortunately, we haven’t done that. We’d probably have the same problem with unlimited terms if we allowed U.S. presidents to run for unlimited terms (okay, maybe not with the current president, but someone like Clinton or Reagan). It makes sense to amend the law. Why should we allow corruption to flourish because of our complacency? Why not close that loophole?

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    “unfortunately, we haven’t done that.”

    What evidence is there that term limits are going to make that happen? The problem is the voters not taking part in the process, not the candidates who are successful within the system. I would support mandatory voting before term limits.

    Again, why should I not be allowed to vote for someone I believe is doing a good job as my representative based on some arbitrary limit due to the apathy of other voters?

    There’s no reason to believe corruption wouldn’t flourish with term limits in place since the same parties would be putting up their candidates. Nixon had term limits.

    What you want to do is punish the people who have become successful within the political process. Sounds un-American to me.

  • Bailey

    Just as a two term limit was needed for the Presidency, I agree the two term limit would be the right thing for Congressional leaders.
    Qualified candidates from the independent group would balance the Democrat & Republican parties.
    There should be a watch-dog atmosphere in Congress to see that special interest groups and lobby groups do not improperly influence legislators with donations to campaign chests in exchange for favors. This was seen as an issue in the Wall Street bailout gift 100 x greater than the automotive bailout loan.

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    Congressional approval was wavering in the teens and low 20s going into Election Day. Most incumbents won in landslide elections, in many cases by 2/3 the vote, so “it’s not my congressperson’s fault.” The only way for voters to slap Congress in the face is to vote against whoever their incumbent congressperson is. That’s kind of effective, but term limits might be the way to go.

    Bicho, have you read what Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington thought about term limits? It’s worth a look. It’s not “punishing” good Congresspeople, because good Congresspeople will always find a way to positively influence our country. It’s not punishing athletes to say they can only play four years in college. It’s not punishing a good President or mayor to say their time is up. It doesn’t punish Miss USA after a year by saying “you’re not pretty anymore.” The whole point of this kind of government was that someone never stays in power too long, I thought.

    Also, the reality of the problem? Term limits have to be approved by … Congress.

  • Harriet

    sorry but I don’t want joe shmo making my laws. I want somebody with an education and experience and a real background in making laws. Ruby – Do you know what would happen if your ideas were actually put into place? what if some conservative housewife from Kansas was making our laws? No tolerance. What if some drug addict from California was making our laws? welfare state. No regular run-of-the-mill citizen is qualifeid to make our laws.

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    “No regular run-of-the-mill citizen is qualifeid to make our laws.”

    Then don’t vote for that candidate who eats paste. Have you ever considered the thousands of viable congresspeople who spent time being state representatives or part of a city council that can do the job? I’d imagine they’d have a better chance at winning an election over a regular person anyway, although if a regular person had good ideas, I see no reason not to elect them, because they alone can’t put legislation into place. In fact I think part of the problem is that more people aren’t trying to run for public office, because I bet there is a lot of brainpower out there that could be put to good use.

    Sarah Palin worked her way up the ranks and regardless of what you thought of her as a VP candidate, most would agree she was good for Alaska and was well-liked within her state. She didn’t exactly have the “background” for it, but she got the experience the way bloggers got mass media experience, by starting small and staying diligent.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    Harriet,

    sorry but I don’t want joe shmo making my laws. I want somebody with an education and experience and a real background in making laws.

    Why should a philosopher bother himself with the ugly business of making law? What have you got that he needs? Once upon a time, when I was five, there was a philosopher running for high office – and everybody laughed Adlai Stevenson off as an egghead. Why should a philosopher put himself in the position of being called a dweeb?

    What’s in it for him? That is the reason so many second-rate schmucks with huge egos who can charm the signature onto a contribution check go into politics. The second-rate schmucks with the big egos don’t care what you call them, because once they get into office, they don’t have to give a tinker’s dam about you.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Just because Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington had an opinion doesn’t mean they always had it right. They were all slave owners, and Jefferson didn’t think women should hold office.

    The representatives work for me. I wouldn’t fire someone who did a good job because of a time limit. I would want to keep them around.

  • Cindy D

    Harriet,

    Or “heaven” help us what if someone such as yourself was making the law?

    I am beginning to see your point!

    I think I will go back to supporting self-governance.

  • Clavos

    No regular run-of-the-mill citizen is qualifeid to make our laws.

    Anyone, and I mean anyone is as qualified as the current crop (or any crop) of congressclowns.

    Most “ordinary” people are more qualified…

  • http://www.fontcraft.com/rod/ Dave Nalle

    While Franklin owned household slaves in his youth, he freed them and became a leading figure in the early abolition movement long before he died. He may have been a philanderer and the father of more than a dozen bastards, but his record on slavery is more positive than that of any other major founding father except maybe Adams.

    Dave

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    What’s your definition of “his youth”?

    From what I see online Benji didn’t release his slaves until 1785, which would have put him at a youthful 79, but I have learned not to trust things I read on the Internet.

    Given time, he may have come around on term limits, too.

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    I’m not saying term limits are good because three founding fathers thought they were good. (Although, if we are dismissing everything they’re saying because they owned slaves, then would you like to co-author a new Constitution with me that doesn’t include the three-fifths rule?) But since they were sort of behind the whole law of our land thing, I’m interested in what they think.

    “The representatives work for me. I wouldn’t fire someone who did a good job because of a time limit. I would want to keep them around.”

    Congressional approval is in the teens and 20s, and we approved 95% of incumbent Representatives and 88%* of incumbent Senators (of those who chose to run for re-election) because they did a “good job.” The American people — and that includes you and me — do not seem to be very qualified to judge incumbents, or they don’t know a brilliant Congress when they see one. And like I said before, good people will find good jobs that help move this country forward.

    Another real problem with term limits, much like changing from BCS to playoffs, is specifics. How many terms is too many? 5? 10? Every sixth US representative has been in power for at least 10 terms (20 years).

    * – Assuming Al Franken loses. If he wins, this number goes down to 86%.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Who dismiss everything they said? Just used that as an example that they weren’t always right.

    Those percentages you cite aren’t mutually exclusive. Approval of Congress as a whole and approval of a voter’s representative are not the same thing. I can like the Senators and Rep. I voted for, and dislike the way the entire body is run.

  • Baronius

    We’re saying that people vote for their congressman, but disapprove of Congress, therefore they’re voting wrong. Maybe the vote is right, and the poll is wrong.

    Tom is ok with his life. He’s raising his kids; the school system might not be the best, but they’re learning. His rush hour commute is a pain, but he’s got a job. He’s got mixed feelings about American foreign policy. Tom knows that some of his money goes to helping the poor. No one’s ever shot one of Tom’s family members or friends.

    If you ask Tom about Congress, he’ll say he disapproves of what they’re doing. Why? Because he has a vague sense that things should be better. Because he’s never read a news story about Congress doing something good. Because post-Watergate, it’s un-American to approve of anything the government does. But Tom basically feels that he’s being represented well, and he’ll reelect most everyone. The votes reflect Tom’s views more accurately than the polls.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Everyone who is in favor of term limits should run for office if they are so committed to the idea of getting rid of the incumbent. If not, their cries ring hollow.

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    “I can like the Senators and Rep. I voted for, and dislike the way the entire body is run.”

    And when the entire nation holds this to be true, we get career politicians. “Congress is inept, but not my representative!” For example, a lot of people like their rep because he/she brings money into their region. This may not be a reason you like your rep., but it’s a common reason I’ve heard. It’s also the same reason most people thought (rightly so) Ted Stevens was wasting taxpayer dollars.

    Our nation’s youth is illiterate and does drugs and will grow up to be a failure, but not my perfect precious snowflake.

    Also, I have considered in the past the task of running for public office here in my hometown. It’s something I hope to do in my lifetime, but I don’t see the reasoning behind “term limits advocates should run for public office or else their words ring hollow.” (See MCH’s reasoning why war supporters should join the military).

    I could aim low and run for state Congress in Michigan, because they have term limits already. A good handful of state legislatures already do this, including yours, Bicho.

  • http://jetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Jet

    You know why old gay Barney Franks keeps getting re-elected? You know why ultra liberal Ted Kennedy keeps getting re-elected?

    Because they do a good job and their constituants like the job they’re doing.

    Sore losers=Term limits.

    It’s the only way an inferior politician has any hope of being elected. Ohio’s Howard Metzenbaum was over 80, rich beyond caring, and the butt of jewish jokes, but the man got elected again and again, because he did a good job.

    Sore losers=Term limits

  • http://ex-conservative.blogspot.com Glenn Contrarian

    Jet –

    I have to disagree. It’s like the old saying in show business: “Bad publicity is better than no publicity at all.”

    I say it’s more of a case of people preferring the devil they know, rather than the devil they don’t.

  • Ruby Lee

    El Bicho, I really do agree with some of what you say. People who believe in term limits ought to run. The problem with people running for office on that platform is that once they win their seat, they don’t want to leave anymore. Congress is a very cushy job. You don’t have to get anything accomplished or even show up, and people will be too lazy to vote you out of office. Why not try a two term limit in the senate? That’s 12 years. That’s enough for anyone.

  • Ruby Lee

    By the way, does anyone really think Teddy Kennedy does a good job? If he had a different last name, he would’ve been laughed out of Congress years ago.

  • http://jetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Jet

    Sore loser Ruby. All the people who vote for him are satisfied with his job or he wouldn’t be there…

    Sorry you don’t see the reality in that, but you keep making up excuses as to why you can’t understand that concept, and he’ll keep getting re-elected.

  • Ruby Lee

    Come on now, Jet, you can’t really believe that. Teddy Kennedy is JFK and RFK’s little brother. That’s it. People vote for him because of nostalgic reasons.

    Incidentally, what do you think qualifies Caroline Kennedy for the Senate? Is it:
    A) Her total lack of experience with legislation
    B) Her absence of any type of public service
    C) Her last name

    In terms of experience, she’s the Democrats’ answer to Sarah Palin.

  • http://jetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Jet

    You just keep believing that Ruby, you poor thing, hundreds of thousands of voters would loudly disagree with you, and that’s the only reality (regardless of whether you want to face it or not) that matters.

    Oh he could pull the wool over their eyes for a few years if you were right, but not for four decades-and that’s an undeniable fact.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    “I don’t see the reasoning behind “term limits advocates should run for public office or else their words ring hollow.”

    Because you are passing the buck. With term limits you want more people to take part in the system, but not you. If not you, why should anyone else be expected to step up?

    Just because MCH wrote it ad nauseum doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth to it. I supported the War in Afghanistan, but why should anyone care what I think about it if I am in the back pushing someone else’s kid to die and kill for my country? If I am not willing to go, my two cents does mean less than anyone who has already served. For one thing, they know war much better than I do who only has movies and books to go on.

    You must not be keeping up on my state because using the CA legislature in any argument weakens the position. The fools running the state have been running a deficit for years and are about to send it into bankruptcy, so terms limits didn’t help.

    Besides, I wouldn’t put much stock into the CA electorate. The state has no money and the foolish majority have bought a light railway system we can’t afford. And to show how messed up the priorities are the majority is against gay marriage but think animals deserve more room in their cages before we eat them. Animal rights over human rights, but at least the weather is nice.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    “does anyone really think Teddy Kennedy does a good job?”

    Apparently every six years the majority of the voters in MA. Since you live in NC, how is it any of your business?

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    Well, you said it’s undeniable. Hell, why even bother typing anything after that?

    You’re arguing a straw man, Jet. Nobody’s denying that Kennedy’s Massachusettsan constituents (pop: 6.4 million) like him. But Kennedy has power to decide the fate of taxpayer money throughout the entire country (pop: 300 million). If someone disapproves of Kennedy’s job, and John Kerry’s job, and John McCain’s job, and Lamar Alexander’s job, and Orrin Hatch’s job, and Dick Durbin’s job and they don’t live in those areas, well, tough shit, move to Canada.

  • http://www.fontcraft.com/rod/ Dave Nalle

    EB, we all have a right to be concerned about the quality of the overall representation which we have as a nation in the house and senate. Things Ted Kennedy does can have a lot of impact on people in states other than Massachusetts.

    That said, it’s perfectly obvious to anyone with even a superficial familiarity with legislative history that whatever his shortcomings, Ted Kennedy has been a successful and effective legislator. He has authored major laws and had a profound influence on other legislators, is influential and widely respected by his colleagues in both parties. And if anything he’s an argument against term limits, because despite his very long career in office and amusing personal failings, he remains fairly true to the beliefs which put him there and continues to serve his constituency faithfully.

    Dave

  • Baronius

    Matt, the problem you’re talking about has to do with federalism. If government were more local, I wouldn’t care about term limits. I think most people wouldn’t. With a limited federal government, Grand Kleagle Robert Byrd will have very little effect on my life.

    Or I guess a better example is Illinois politics. Their governor can be as corrupt as they’ll let him, but when it starts affecting the Senate, it affects the rest of us.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Dave, she can be concerned, but unless she has North Carolina and her local politics all cleaned up, she has enough work at home and should focus on that first.

  • Bailey

    The Congress will never agree to placing themselves on a two term limit. Some are commited to serving the people back home but their eyes on their paychecks and retirement packages which far exceed the salary of the people they serve. (Congress doubled their salary a few years ago and at the same time turned down an increase in the min. wage).
    There are able and capable people who are qualified to serve in Congress, but it takes $$$ to have their names recognized,i.e. third party candidates who were ignored by the new media this past election.
    This is another reason why we need term limits.

  • Ruby Lee

    Unfortunately, I don’t have North Carolina all cleaned up, but in the meantime I do think we should all be concerned about what the Congress is doing. Whatever your political beliefs, you must resent the fact that certain congresspersons are continually reelected after doing a very poor job. They may not represent your state, but you have to live with whatever legislation they pass.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    We have had term limits in CA for 18 years and the legislature has still driven the state towards bankruptcy. Here’s a paper from 2004 that states why the authors conclude “have eroded legislative capacities in unhelpful ways.”

    You are deluding yourself if you think it’s a panacea. We need an electorate that is better informed and active in the process. Anything else is just moving deck chairs on the Titanic.

  • http://jetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Jet

    Quote: We have had term limits in CA for 18 years and the legislature has still driven the state towards bankruptcy…

    El, stop bragging