Why No Term Limits for Congress? The Constitution

Members of the US House of Representative voting
US House of Representatives Votes To Elect A New Speaker. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Whenever Congress makes people really mad (which seems to be most of the time lately) the call goes up for our national lawmakers to face term limits. I mean the president is limited to two terms, so term limits for members of Congress seem reasonable. There's just one thing in the way: the U.S. Constitution.

Historical Precedence for Term Limits 

Even before the Revolutionary War, several American colonies applied term limits.

For example, under Connecticut’s “Fundamental Orders of 1639,” the colony’s governor was prohibited from serving consecutive terms of only one year, and stating that “no person be chosen Governor above once in two years.” After independence, Pennsylvania’s Constitution of 1776 limited members of the state’s General Assembly from serving more than “four years in seven.

At the federal level, the Articles of Confederation, adopted in 1781, set term limits for delegates to the Continental Congress – the equivalent of the modern Congress – mandating that “no person shall be capable of being a delegate for more than three years in any term of six years.”

There have been congressional term limits. If fact, U.S. Senators and Representatives from 23 states faced term limits from 1990 to 1995, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the practice unconstitutional with its decision in the case of U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton.

In a 5-4 majority opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens, the Supreme Court ruled that the states could not impose congressional term limits because the Constitution simply did not grant them the power to do so.

In his majority opinion, Justice Stevens noted that allowing the states to impose term limits would result in "a patchwork of state qualifications" for members of the U.S. Congress, a situation he suggested would be inconsistent with "the uniformity and national character that the framers sought to ensure." In a concurring opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that state-specific term limits would jeopardize the "relationship between the people of the Nation and their National Government."

Term Limits and the Constitution

The Founding Fathers - the people who wrote the Constitution - did, in fact, consider and reject the idea of congressional term limits. In Federalist Papers No. 53, James Madison, father of the Constitution, explained why the Constitutional Convention of 1787 rejected term limits.

"[A] few of the members of Congress will possess superior talents; will by frequent re-elections, become members of long standing; will be thoroughly masters of the public business, and perhaps not unwilling to avail themselves of those advantages. The greater the proportion of new members of Congress, and the less the information of the bulk of the members, the more apt they be to fall into the snares that may be laid before them," wrote Madison.

So, the only way to impose term limits on Congress is to amend the Constitution, which is exactly what two current members of Congress are trying to do, according to About U.S. Politics expert Tom Murse.

Murse suggests that Republican Senators Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and David Vitter of Louisiana may just be "milking an idea that would be popular among a broad segment of the population," by proposing congressional term limits constitutional amendment they know has little if any chance of being enacted.

As Murse points out, the term limits proposed by Sens. Toomey and Vitter are very similar to those in that universally forwarded email rant demanding passage of a mythical "Congressional Reform Act."

There is, however, one big difference. As Murse says, "The mythical Congressional Reform Act probably has a better shot at becoming law."

The Pros and Cons of Congressional Term Limits

Even political scientists remain divided on the question of term limits for Congress. Some argue that the legislative process would benefit from “fresh blood” and ideas, while others view the wisdom gained from long experience as essential to the continuity of government.

The Pros of Term Limits

  • Limits Corruption: The power and influence gained by being a member of Congress for a long period of time tempt lawmakers to base their votes and policies on their own self-interest, instead of those of the people. Term limits would help prevent corruption and reduce the influence of special interests.
  • Congress – It’s Not a Job: Being a member of Congress should not become the office-holders career. People who choose to serve in Congress should do so for noble reasons and a true desire to serve the people, not just to have a perpetual well-paying job.
  • Bring in Some Fresh Ideas: Any organization – even Congress – thrives when fresh new ideas are offered and encouraged. The same people holding the same seat for years leads to stagnation. Basically, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. New people are more likely to think outside the box.
  • Reduce Fundraising Pressure: Both lawmakers and voters dislike the role money plays in the democratic system. Constantly facing reelection, members of Congress feel pressured to devote more time to raising campaign funds than to serving the people. While imposing term limits might not have much of an effect on the overall amount of money in politics, it would at least limit the amount of time elected officials will have to donate to fundraising.

The Cons of Term Limits

  • It’s Undemocratic:  Term limits would actually limit the right of the people to choose their elected representatives. As evidenced by the number of incumbent lawmakers reelected in every midterm election, many Americans truly like their representative and want them to serve for as long as possible. The mere fact that a person has already served should not deny the voters a chance to return them to office.
  • Experience is Valuable: The longer you do a job, the better you get at it. Lawmakers who have earned the trust of the people and proven themselves to be honest and effective leaders should not have their service cut short by term limits. New members of Congress face a steep learning curve. Term limits would reduce the chances of new members growing into the job and becoming better at it.
  • Throwing Out the Baby With the Bathwater: Yes, term limits would help eliminate some of the corrupt, power-hungry and incompetent lawmakers, but it would also get rid of all the honest and effective ones.
  • Getting to Know Each Other: One of the keys to being a successful legislator is working well with fellow members. Trusts and friendships among members across party lines are essential to progress on controversial legislation. Such politically bipartisan friendships take time to develop. Term limits would reduce the chances for legislators to get to know each other and use those relationships to the advantage of both parties and, of course, the people.
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Longley, Robert. "Why No Term Limits for Congress? The Constitution." ThoughtCo, Jul. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/why-no-term-limits-for-congress-3974547. Longley, Robert. (2017, July 3). Why No Term Limits for Congress? The Constitution. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/why-no-term-limits-for-congress-3974547 Longley, Robert. "Why No Term Limits for Congress? The Constitution." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/why-no-term-limits-for-congress-3974547 (accessed October 17, 2017).