Among the concessions made by Representative Kevin McCarthy to win over the Republican backbenchers who were holding up his election as House speaker was one that most members of Congress will probably oppose — but that their constituents overwhelmingly endorse. He agreed to schedule a vote on a proposed constitutional amendment to establish term limits for members of Congress.
For several years Representative Ralph Norman of South Carolina has introduced an amendment that would limit House members to three two-year terms and senators to two six-year terms. A vote on Norman’s proposal will be largely symbolic. To advance a constitutional amendment to the states for ratification requires a two-thirds supermajority in each house of Congress; it is unlikely that 290 representatives and 66 senators will back a measure to bar themselves from running for reelection indefinitely. But considerably more than two-thirds of Americans would enthusiastically back such a measure.
For decades, congressional term limits have commanded widespread public support. Opinion polls consistently show lopsided approval for restricting senators and representatives to a fixed number of terms. When Gallup asked about the issue in a 2013 survey, 75 percent of respondents, including large majorities of self-identified Democrats, Republicans, and independents, were in favor. In a Quinnipiac poll three years later, the results were even more impressive — 82 percent of Americans surveyed wanted term limits.
The intensity of public support became clear in the early 1990s, when activists in 23 states used the ballot initiative process to impose term limits on their US senators and representatives. By 1995, nearly half of all congressional seats in America were term-limited. Alas, the Supreme Court that year struck down those state laws. In a 5-4 decision, it held that only with a constitutional amendment could congressional terms be capped.
The case for term limits is straightforward: Men and women cannot be trusted for too long with too much power. That is why presidents may be elected to a maximum of two terms, why the governors of 36 states are term-limited, why 15 states impose term limits on legislators, and why nine of the 10 largest cities, including New York and Los Angeles, apply term limits to their mayors and (in most cases) city councilors. Power not only tends to corrupt, it tends to do so fairly quickly. Term limits are a check on that corruption.
There were term limits in several American colonies before the Revolutionary War, and delegates to the Continental Congress were term-limited under the Articles of Confederation afterward. By contrast, the constitution drafted in Philadelphia did not include term limits — a mistake that was rightly decried at the time. A number of leading figures warned that unless incumbents regularly had to vacate their offices — they called it “rotation” — American democracy would descend into ill-governed oligarchy.
In the words of George Mason, who drafted both the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Constitution of Virginia, “Nothing is so essential to the preservation of a republican government as a periodic rotation.” Thomas Jefferson in 1787 wrote from Paris, where he was serving as the US minister to France, to single out the absence of term limits as one of the proposed charter’s gravest flaws. A “feature I … greatly dislike,” he commented to James Madison, “is the abandonment in every instance of the necessity of rotation in office.” Jefferson stayed true to that principle; years later he refused to run for a third term as president, though it would have been his for the asking.
Jefferson and Mason were right and so is the 82 percent of the public that wants an amendment limiting congressional terms. Replacing a member of Congress shouldn’t be as rare as a solar eclipse. Left to their own devices, most senators and representatives never agree to leave office voluntarily after a few terms. To minimize the odds that voters might retire them involuntarily, members multiply the advantages of incumbency — gerrymandered districts, free mail privileges, government-paid staff, the flow of campaign contributions from favor-seeking lobbyists, and voting rules rigged to make it all but impossible for an outside challenger to defeat them. Result? The vast majority of congressional incumbents stay in office for as long as they wish.
Addiction to incumbency has greatly harmed American politics. The cure for that addiction is a constitutional amendment limiting the terms of senators and representatives. This is one issue on which nearly all of us agree. Let’s turn up the heat on Congress to make it happen.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit https://bit.ly/ArguableNewsletter.