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."