There has been much talk recently particularly in Social Media about term limits for members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. This might be out of frustration on the part of social media participants who have disagreements with Congress about current issues and see the same persons holding seats in either house year after year, election after election. But would term limits aid or interfere with the process of government at the federal level?
The current constitutional requirement: Each member of the U.S. House of Representatives is elected during national elections held every even numbered year the first week of November (specifically election day is the day after the first Monday of the month of November). The term is for two years, and there is no limitation on the number of consecutive terms. For the U.S. Senate the term is for six years with no limitation on consecutive terms. The only constitutional requirements for membership would be that Representatives must be at least 25 years old, be a citizen of the United States for seven years and live in the state they represent. Senators must be at least 30 years old, be a citizen for nine years, and live in the state they represent.
The value of stability: There is a value in having a moderate amount of turnover in Congress in that it becomes easier for members who are returned for multiple terms to make contacts and forge business relationships with other members—even from the other political party. Further, members returned for multiple terms are more likely to become leaders either in the various committees or on the floor of the House itself. There was a time in Washington D.C. when this was the status quo as House members would often stay in town over the weekend and attend social events which included other members of the other principle party. These social contacts would lead to business contacts that often reached across the aisle on political issues.
The beginning of modern day partisanship: This “friendliness” began to dissolve into the partisanship that we see today during the 1990’s when Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House. The protocols were changed to send most members of the House back to their home states on the weekends ostensibly to get closer and more familiar with their constituents. This change broke up the harmony that existed prior to this time by drawing in most of the aforementioned social comradery and blocking the informal contacts between House members that led to reaching out across the aisle. This author suspects that these changes were implemented to make it much easier for the House leadership to control the outcome of voting thereby concentrating political power into the hands of the House leadership.
The tendency for members to prioritize re-election: Most politicians in Congress seek to bring some form of federally backed development home to their constituents while serving their terms. Accomplishing this is much more feasible for those members who enjoy the stability of serving multiple consecutive terms. This creates the tendency for members to prioritize getting re-elected as their most important endeavor. Decisions made solely to advance one’s re-election possibilities might not always be in the best interest of a House member’s constituents or the population of the country as a whole. The cost currently associated with election campaigns has a tendency to push politicians into the hands of those wealthy power brokers who aim to pursue their own agendas by providing resources for re-election.
The irony of establishing term limits: In order to place term limits on members of the U.S. House of Representatives or Senate any proposal to do so would need to be ratified by…a majority of members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. This would be asking the members of Congress to restrict themselves by hampering their longevity. A constitutional amendment would be a sensible avenue to decide on term limits, but it must also be approved in both Houses of Congress with a two-thirds majority before being sent for ratification by at least 38 state legislatures. A national constitutional convention would also be an avenue to bring about term limits, but might throw the entire federal system open for debate and change all at once.
Summary: A reasonable plan for term limits might provide a solution to the frustrations felt by voters and still provide elected members the opportunity to advance and succeed in Congress. This author therefore proposes the following for solving the term limits issue:
- A limit of four consecutive two-year terms for members of the U.S. House of Representatives. After sitting out at least one two-year period a member may run again for the same seat and be re-elected indefinitely.
- A limit of three consecutive six-year terms for members of the U.S. Senate. After sitting out at least one six-year period a member may run again for the same seat and be re-elected for three more consecutive terms.
- Additionally, a limit of one 10-year period for Supreme Court Justices. At the end of this period each justice would need to be re-upped by the Congress and the term would at that point be for life.