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The Need for Congressional Term Limits: Two is Enough!

Congressmen (men and women) and Senators should be limited to serving two terms. The Congressional Research Service states that, for the 112th Congress (2011-2012), the average tenure for members of the House of Representatives was 9.8 years (4.9 terms) and for Senators was 11.4 years (1.9 terms). The leaders in the House and Senate, among others, have been in Washington for much longer: Senator Harry Reid (27 years), Senator Mitch McConnell (28 years), Congressman John Boehner (23 years), and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (25 years).[1] As Congressmen and Senators stay in Washington and continue to serve, these individuals govern Americans for years on end and, as a result, become a de facto “ruling class.”[2]

The most important reason for term limits is that many of those in Congress and the Senate were serving when many problems facing our nation were created or worsened. The United States is facing tremendous difficulties (poverty, crime, a lackluster education system, $17 trillion in national debt, etc.), and, while the elected leaders and “ruling class” talk about these problems, the situation keeps getting worse. For example, in the past 23 years, the national debt has increased by $14 trillion or almost 466%. The United States needs leaders who can address these issues and implement solutions. Americans should not rely on the individuals who created the problems to solve the problems.

The second reason for term limits is that the current election system greatly favors incumbents. To be successful in a political campaign, one must have a tremendous amount of money to spend. The money is used for television and radio advertising, salaries for campaign staff, web site construction and maintenance, travel for rallies and meeting voters, etc. It is much easier for incumbents to raise money because individuals and corporations will contribute to them (in many cases to secure political favors in the future). Because challengers do not have this money, they have less to spend on campaigns, and their chances of victory decrease.

The reality of campaign fundraising answers the obvious question of why Congressmen and Senators get reelected if they are not doing the job that they were sent to Washington to do. Bloomberg reported that, in 2012, 90% of the House of Representatives were reelected and 91% of Senators were reelected although Congress had a 21% approval rating according to a October 15-16 Gallup poll. Two of the reasons for this fact is the money necessary to run for office and the ability of incumbents to fundraise. (Addressing campaign finance is also necessary and that is the subject of a previous blog: “Campaign Finance Reform: Dollars Should not Dominate in a Democracy.”)

The third reason for term limits is the tension between a Congressman’s and Senator’s duty to pass laws that benefit the country and the desire to keep one’s job. One must not forget that, for Congressmen and Senators, serving in office is their job. It is the how they get paid, and, like everyone else, they want to maintain their livelihood and source of income. To keep their jobs, Congressmen and Senators must get reelected. As previously stated, to get reelected, Congressmen and Senators require money to spend on their campaigns.

The source of this campaign money is often special interest groups and those individuals or groups which expect a certain vote or bill in return for their contributions. Congressmen and Senators often support and pass legislation which support their financial benefactors rather than the districts or states that the Congressmen and Senators represent. Term limits would help eliminate this problem because it would remove the possibility of multiple reelection campaigns and the need to fundraise.

Fourth, term limits would hopefully lessen the partisan divide in Washington. Political parties are often the source of campaign funds, and Congressmen and Senators often have to vote along with their party to get access to these funds. If term limits were in place and members of Congress and the Senate did not have to worry about support for a reelection campaign, they would be free to cross party lines and vote their conscience and for the good of their district and America.

Fifth, term limits would instill a sense of urgency. Congressmen and Senators would have to act as quickly as possible to pass their agenda because they would only have a limited amount of time to pursue it. Hopefully, Congress and the Senate would be more productive as a result.

The only way to achieve term limits is with a Constitutional amendment. Amending the Constitution to address election issues has been done twice previously. The 22nd Amendment, ratified in 1951, limits the President to two terms. The 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, allows individuals in a state to vote directly for Senators, rather than having the members of the State Legislature vote for Senators.

To institute term limits, I suggest the following Constitutional Amendments.

I. “Members of the House of Representatives shall be limited to two terms whether served in succession or separately. This amendment and the restrictions therein shall begin with the Congressional term immediately succeeding the passage of this amendment. Members of the House of Representatives serving when this amendment is ratified shall be deemed to have served one term.”

II. “Members of the Senate shall be limited to two terms whether served in succession or separately. This amendment and the restrictions therein shall begin with the Senate term immediately succeeding the passage of this amendment. Members of the Senate serving when this amendment is ratified shall be deemed to have served one term.”

[1] A list of other long serving members of Congress is below:

House of Representatives

  • Representative Eric Cantor, Majority Leader in the House: 12 years (since 2001)

  • Representative Kevin McCarty, House Republican Whip: 7 years (since 2006)

  • Representative Steny Hoyer, House Democratic Whip: 32 years (since 1981)

  • Representative John Dingell: 58 years (since 1955)


  • Senator Dick Durbin, Majority Whip: 17 years (since 1996)

  • Senator John Cornyn, Minority Whip: 11 years (since 2002)

  • Senator Orrin Hatch: 36 years (since 1977)

  • Senator Patrick Leahy: 39 years (since 1974)

  • Senator John McCain: 27 years (since 1986; preceded by 4 years in the House of Representatives)

  • Senator Lindsey Graham: 11 years (since 2002; preceded by 8 years in the House of Representatives)

  • Senator Charles Schumer: 15 years (since 1998; preceded by 18 years in the House of Representatives)

  • Notable individuals who were previously Senators:

  • Vice President Joe Biden: Senator for 36 years (since 1976)

  • Secretary of State John Kerry: Senator for 28 years (since 1985)

[2] One must be careful to note that the mere fact that an individual has served for several years does not mean that they are bad Congressmen or Senators. Generalizing the quality of one’s service based on the length of one’s tenure would be unfair. Individuals who serve for long periods of time could have been good or bad, and individuals who serve for short periods of time could have been good or bad.

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