The Debate Over Term Limits for Congress

The Pros and Cons of Imposing Terms Limits for Congress

Speaker of the House of Representatives Henry Clay (1777 - 1852) addressing the Senate.
Speaker of the House of Representatives Henry Clay (1777 - 1852) addressing the Senate.

MPI /  Getty Images

The idea of imposing term limits for Congress, or a mandatory restriction on how long members of the House and Senate can serve in office, has been debated by the public for centuries. There are pros and cons and strong opinions on both sides of the issue, perhaps a surprise, given the electorate's less-than-flattering opinion of their representatives in modern history.

Here are some questions and answers about term limits and the ongoing debate surrounding the idea, as well as a look at the pros and cons of term limits for Congress.

Are There Term Limits for Congress Now?

No. Members of the House of Representatives are elected for two years at a time and can serve an unlimited number of terms. Members of the Senate are elected for six years and also can serve an unlimited number of terms.

What's the Longest Anyone Has Served?

The longest anyone ever served in the Senate was 51 years, 5 months and 26 days, a record held by the late Robert C. Byrd. The Democrat from West Virginia was in office from Jan. 3, 1959, through June 28, 2010.

The longest anyone ever served in the House is 59.06 years (21,572), a record held by U.S. Rep. John Dingell Jr. The Democrat from Michigan was in office from 1955 to 2015.

Are There Term Limits for the President?

Presidents are restricted to only two four-year terms in the White House under the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, which reads in part: "No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice."

Have There Been Attempts to Impose Term Limits on Congress?

There have been numerous attempts by some lawmakers to pass statutory term limits, but all of those proposals have been unsuccessful. Perhaps the most famous attempt at passing term limits came during the so-called Republican revolution when the GOP took control of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections.

Term limits were a tenet of the Republican Contract with America. The contract called for a removal of career politicians through a first-ever vote on term limits as part of the Citizen Legislature Act. Term limits never came to fruition.

What about the Congressional Reform Act?

The Congressional Reform Act does not exist. It is a fiction passed off in email chains as a legitimate piece of legislation that would limit members of Congress to 12 years of service - either two six-year Senate terms or six two-year House terms.

What Are the Arguments in Favor of Term Limits?

Proponents of term limits argue that restricting the service of lawmakers prevents politicians from amassing too much power in Washington and becoming too alienated from their constituents.

The thinking is that many lawmakers view the work as a career and not a temporary assignment, and therefore spend much of their time posturing, raising money for their re-election campaigns and running for office instead of focusing on the important issues of the day. Those who favor term limits say they would remove the intense focus on politics and place it back on policy.

What Are the Arguments Against Term Limits?

The most common argument against term limits goes something like this: "We already have term limits. They're called elections." The primary case against term limits is that, indeed, our elected officials in the House and Senate must face their constituents every two years or every six years and get their approval.

Imposing term limits, opponents argue, would remove the power from voters in favor of an arbitrary law. For example, a popular lawmaker seen by her constituents as being effective and influential would want to re-elect her to Congress - but could be barred from doing so by a term-limit law.

View Article Sources
  1. "Longest-Serving Senators." United States Senate, 2020. 

  2. "Members with 40 Years or More Service." History, Art & Archives, United States House of Representatives, 2020. 

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Murse, Tom. "The Debate Over Term Limits for Congress." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Murse, Tom. (2021, September 8). The Debate Over Term Limits for Congress. Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "The Debate Over Term Limits for Congress." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).