By 1995, 23 states had adopted laws restricting the number of terms their members of Congress could serve. That year, in what the "New York Times" termed "one of the most important [decisions] the [Supreme Court] has ever issued on the structure of the Federal Government," five justices concluded that in the absence of a constitutional amendment, neither the states nor Congress could limit the tenure of U.S. representatives or senators. Still, the idea of restricting Congress members' time in Washington has its backers.
In 2012, then-Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., proposed a constitutional amendment that would limit representatives to three terms (six years in total) and senators to two terms (12 years). "We need true citizen legislators who spend their time defending the Constitution, not currying favor with lobbyists," DeMint explained, arguing that career politicians seek to benefit themselves, sometimes to the detriment of their constituents. While his legislation was rejected by the Senate, his argument is shared by many term-limit proponents.
Overcoming Incumbent Advantages
Between 1982 and 2006, more than 95 percent of congressional representatives and 87 percent of senators who sought re-election were victorious. This makes getting fresh blood in the Capitol difficult. Term limits, however, would ensure faster turnover. Such a system would move Congress closer to what the term-limit proponents believe the founders intended. Indeed, in the early years of the republic, members of Congress often voluntarily left office after a year or two; for proponents, this demonstrates that early Americans were skeptical of career politicians.
Term-limit proponents argue that members of Congress who stay in Washington for an extended time become embedded in the culture and too close to federal agencies and lobbyists. "In an age where scores of federal agencies and special interests continually lobby for funding," Dan Greenberg of the pro-term-limit Heritage Foundation wrote in 1994, "there is a very real danger that Congressmen will become enmeshed in a culture that is overfamiliar with the federal government and insulated from the communities they ostensibly represent."
Broader Range of Experience
Legislating can be a complex process. Forcing lawmakers to leave after an arbitrary period -- and having them replaced by new, unseasoned lawmakers -- means that legislative experience and institutional memory are lost. In California, this has led to less lawmaking and greater deference to the governor in budget matters, tilting the balance of power toward the executive. In Florida term limits are said to have empowered lobbyists and have been associated with an increase in corruption cases.
Term-limit advocates, including Philip Blumel of the advocacy group U.S. Term Limits, counter that term limits bring a “broader range of experience” to government as more people -- and more types of people -- are given the opportunity to serve. As term-limit backers are often (but not always) conservatives, they want to infuse Congress with private-sector experience, rather than legislative experience.
- Southeast Missouri State University: The Incumbency Advantage in the U.S. Congress
- New York Times: High Court Blocks Term Limits for Congress in a 5-4 Vote
- The Heritage Foundation: Term Limits: The Only Way to Clean Up Congress
- WNYC.org: Explainer: Should Congress Have Term Limits? (Part 1)
- WNYC.org: Explainer: Should Congress Have Term Limits? (Part 2)
- WNYC.org: Explainer: Should Congress Have Term Limits (Part 3)
- Florida State University: An Analysis of the Impact of Term Limits on the Florida Legislature
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