In 1947, Congress approved the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution limiting a president to two full terms in office. After being ratified by enough states, that amendment became official in 1951.
Back then, Congress got so wrapped up in limiting a president’s time in office that they completely forgot about themselves. Thus, to this day, there are no term limits for members of Congress.
George Washington set the precedent that two terms and eight years were enough for a president. But members of Congress have never chosen to abide by the advice of the man they claim to admire so much. Most politicians elected to either the Senate or the House will stay there until they are voted out, pursue a higher office, or retire. Few, if any, members of Congress have ever ended their time in office by saying, “I’ve had a nice run, it’s time for someone else to take over.”
“Prudence on my part must arrest any attempt of the well-meant, but mistaken views of my friends, to introduce me again into the Chair of Government.”
— George Washington
Most of the time, members of Congress stay in office for as long as possible, doing so for their own interest and well-being rather than the best interest of the country or their constituents. The average service time in Congress has increased significantly as the country has aged. Meanwhile, it’s almost unheard of for any member of Congress not to at least seek re-election.
There are also extreme cases of people like Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and John Dingell of Michigan who spent over 50 years in Congress. Considering all that, it seems fair to explore whether it’s time for Congress to pass an amendment imposing term limits on itself.
It’s Time To Go
The argument in favor of term limits for members of Congress has been discussed since the time that presidential term limits were first brought to the podium. The reasoning has also =been similar. Around 1944, former presidential candidate Thomas Dewey argued that Franklin D. Roosevelt seeking a fourth term as president was “the most dangerous threat to our freedom ever proposed.” Dewey’s thinking can be applied to Congressional term limits as well.
One could argue that power builds the longer one holds an office. For instance, dictators tend to grow more powerful the longer they’re in control. Obviously, elected officials are different from brutal dictators in many ways. However, with more time in office, one’s stature in the eyes of the people tends to grow. We see this in long-time senators receiving more respect than young members of the Senate. With that stature, officials often become more comfortable wielding their power in a number of ways, at times skirting the line of what can be considered democratic.
Moreover, the longer a member of Congress retains his or her seat, the more out of touch that leader becomes with his or her constituents. They live primarily inside the Washington bubble, separated from their district and the people they are in Congress to represent. At a certain point, it’s easy to lose focus on the issues that affect one’s constituency and focus on one’s personal agenda, which is not the reason you were elected.
With no term limits, the primary job of any politician becomes getting re-elected for another term. For those in the House of Representatives who serve two-year terms, almost half of that two years are spent trying to remain in office. That’s far too much time spent trying to raise money and run a campaign instead of doing the job you were put there to do in the first place.
Instituting term limits for members of Congress will also help to keep the country moving forward. Forcing membership within Congress to turn over more frequently will help to perpetuate fresh ideas into politics. With term limits, potential candidates who decline to run because they’re intimidated by a long-time incumbent will be more likely to run. More people will be encouraged to run for office, and more options almost always lead to a better democracy.
Tradition is Tradition
Of course, the argument to carry on without term limits in Congress is strong as well. While doing away with term limits has the potential to create more candidates and more options for voters, it guarantees that at least one option will be taken away, meaning the incumbent who has reached his or her limit. More importantly, it takes away an option that voters like because they have voted that person into office multiple times already.
There is also something to be said for having a law-making body that’s filled with experienced politicians. Writing laws is no easy task; in fact, it’s a skill that is usually developed over many years. Younger members of Congress usually seek out guidance from older members for help writing laws to make sure no stone goes unturned during the process. This is a facet of law-making that would be missed if older members were forced out by term limits.
Some have also tried to argue that if Congress were full of lawmakers who lacked experience, they would be more susceptible to special interest groups. The belief is they wouldn’t have been in power long enough to gain a competent understanding of every single issue, and so they lean on special interest groups and lobbyists for guidance.
“Nothing renders government more unstable than a frequent change of the persons that administer it.”
-Roger Sherman, 1788.
It’s also possible that former Congress members forced out by term limits would get jobs in the private sector as lobbyists. They could then use that position to influence the current members of Congress, wielding their power from the outside. This is not a far-fetched scenario and one that should be given strong consideration in the debate around term limits in Congress.
Do the Right Thing
In the end, the right thing to do is to institute term limits for members of Congress. Our government is already filled with a system of checks and balances, and this would become one of them. Having one person hold the same office for an infinite number of election cycles is not bringing balance to the government. Part of the purpose of democracy is to allow for change and growth, which is part of the reason term limits were placed on the office of president.
Moreover, Members of Congress are there to serve the public, not to build a career for -themselves. As soon as a politician becomes more concerned with re-election than doing his or her job, they are no longer serving the people. George Washington leaving the presidency after two terms and eight years is evidence that the founding fathers did not intend for public service to be permanent; it was meant to be an honor rather than a career.
Of course, tradition can be a powerful tool and change can be a slow process. However, even if an amendment were passed instituting term limits for members of Congress, every current member of Congress would be grandfathered into the new law, so they would personally have nothing to fear with regard to their own spot in Congress.
Perhaps most importantly, a Gallup poll from 2013 indicates that 75% of American favor term limits in Congress. If members of Congress were truly doing their jobs and acting based on the will of the people, they would pass a Constitutional amendment that sets term limits for all members of Congress.
We were always told growing up that we would eventually be the leaders of tomorrow. But with members of the previous generation maintaining their seat in Congress for one election cycle after another, younger generations have been largely left out of politics. The time has come to set term limits, giving younger generations the opportunity to become the leaders we were promised we would one day become.