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Term Limits for Congress


Our Founding Fathers codified the separation of powers doctrine in the Constitution. Each branch of government offers checks and balances on the other two. There are additional checks and balances within the deliberative bodies of the House of Representatives and Senate.


For proposed legislation to become law, a bill needs to be sponsored, then it goes through committees, subcommittees, full committees, hearings, debates, reports, arguments, testimonies, and conference committees, and all the while there is lobbying, spinning, politicking, compromising, deal making, and pandering going on. If a bill can even make it through that cursory list of procedures, a president can veto it. All of this serves to prevent an individual or partisan group from having too much power.


Separation of powers works well inside the government labyrinth – maybe too well. We have gone from checks and balances to gridlock, paralysis, and corruption.


It is time for term limits. Note well that the entire system of separation of powers and checks and balances will remain exactly the same -- just with a different bunch of politicians.


Politicians Don’t Need Term Limits – They Need Jail


Term limits will help diminish corruption, but won’t guarantee anything good will happen – politicians will still be politicians – no matter what political party you belong to.


Limiting the time politicians spend in Washington will help to diminish corruption and might improve the opinion people have of Congress. Here are a few examples of long-serving politicians and their ignominious demise.


  • Bob Livingston (R-LA) served 22 years in the House before he resigned for womanizing.
  • Bob Packwood (R-OR) served 26 years in the Senate before he resigned for womanizing.
  • Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL) served 36 years in the House before pleading guilty to mail fraud.
  • William J. Jefferson (D-LA) served 18 years in the House before being found guilty of bribery.
  • Randy Cunningham (R-CA) served 14 years in the House until he pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to commit bribery and tax evasion among other things.
  • Carroll Hubbard (D-KY) served 18 years in the House before pleading guilty to violations of campaign finance laws.
  • Mario Biaggi (D-NY) served almost 20 years in the House before being convicted in two separate corruption trials.   


The above is by no means a comprehensive list of scandals and you might be able to find scandals involving politicians in their first few terms in office, but I think term limits would have prevented some of those scandals and will prevent some scandals in the future.


Bet on the Incumbents to Win


This sounds bad, but I’m starting to like it when politicians get caught in scandals; because then there is at least a chance we can get rid of them. Other than natural death, it seems scandal is the only way to get rid of long-term congressmen.   


In the House, incumbents hold an especially astounding winning percentage. In elections from 1964 to 2008, incumbents won 93.4% of the elections. In 5 of those election years -- out of the last 12 in that same time period -- incumbents won 98% of the elections. The worst election year incumbents had in that time period was 1970 - but they still won a whopping 85% of the races. This is why the political parties don’t like it when one of their congressmen retires or dies. They lose the huge advantage of incumbency. It means the next election for that seat will be between two challengers.


In the Senate, incumbents won 81.6% of the elections from 1964 to 2008. So unless you have to beat the spread, or get a hot tip, you should always bet on the incumbents to win.


(The source for the data above is: The Center for Responsive Politics. “Reelection Rates Over the Years.” Date I accessed, 05/10/2012.)   


What Are the Limits?


Proposed limits on the number of terms vary, but commonly 3 to 6 terms, or 6 to 12 years in the House, and 2 to 3 terms, or 12 to 18 years in the Senate. I am open to any combination of the limits above. However, for the remainder of this essay my frame of reference will be a limit of 5 terms, or 10 years in the House and 3 terms, or 18 years in the Senate.


Decades Spent in Congress


Term limits will replace near permanent politicians with temporary politicians. Here is a list showing the absurd length of time some of our politicians have been in office.


(The source for the data below is: Wikipedia. “List of current members of the United States House of Representatives by seniority”. Last updated, 8 April 2012. Date I accessed, 05/10/2012.)


For the House of Representatives:

  • 4 have logged more than 40 years
  • 18 have logged more than 30 years
  • 42 have logged more than 20 years
  • 128 have logged more than 10 years


The total who have been in office for more than 10 years is 192 – or 44% of the   

435 representatives in the House.


(The source for the data below is: Wikipedia. “Seniority in the United States Senate”. Last updated, 12 February 2012. Date I accessed, 05/10/2012.)


For the Senate:

  • 1 has logged more than 40 years
  • 7 have logged more than 30 years
  • 14 have logged more than 20 years


The total who have been in office for more than 18 years is 22 – or 22% of the 100 senators.


The all-time record for amount of time spent in Congress is held by Senator Robert Byrd who died, while in office, at age 92, on June 28, 2010, after serving 57 years in Congress. 57 years!


A Major Objection to Term Limits


The Constitution may not allow for it and therefore an amendment may be necessary. I respect that argument because I have so much respect for our Founding Fathers. It is a respectable argument but it is begging the question. It just reasserts why we are debating this issue in the first place.


Here is a make-believe example of an affirmative argument against term limits. “If we switch to term limits it is a fact that murder and rape will increase by 100%.” That would be too high of a price to pay just to spite some politicians. As for an amendment, the Constitution has been amended before so it isn’t unprecedented. I greatly admire strict constitutionalists, but I want specifics on what it means to get back to the Constitution on all of the major issues.


A Precedent: States with Term Limits


Some states already have term limits and the world didn’t end. On the other hand nothing noteworthy happened either. Judge for yourself. There are 36 states with varying forms of term limits for governors. California, Michigan, and Missouri have term limits; Illinois, Iowa, and New York have no limits.


There are 15 states with term limits for legislators. The limits vary. Examples of states with and without term limits for legislators are the same as the six listed above.


(The source for the above: Wikipedia. “Term Limits in the United States”. Last updated, 9 May 2012. Date I accessed, 05/10/2012.)


Another Precedent: Presidential Term Limits


We already have term limits for presidents but I don’t see many constitutional purists champing at the bit to reverse it. In fact, our very first President (and one of our very best) George Washington started the tradition -- of serving only 2 terms ending in 1789 -- that everyone followed until FDR was elected to a 4th term in 1944. The 22nd Amendment limited presidents to 2 terms, but George Washington had established de facto term limits from the very start. The 22nd Amendment just codified it.


Without term limits on presidents, we might have had Reagan for 24 years until he died at age 93 in 2004, or we might have had Clinton for 48 years until he dies at age 93 in 2040. Any takers?




I believe term limits will bring more newcomers and outsiders to Congress. I believe it logically follows that they will bring newer and fresher ideas. It is for these reasons that, generally speaking, lobbyists don’t like term limits.


With the way things are now, a lobbyist already knows who he has in his pocket and who he needs to lobby to change their minds. They don’t want to have to deal with newcomers who might think for themselves.


Some lobbyists are former congressmen and when you consider just how long some politicians have been in Congress, the people they are lobbying are the same people they were serving with. Remember Bob Livingston from earlier? He is currently a lobbyist in Washington. And Bob Packwood? Yep, he’s a lobbyist too. There is a lot of inbreeding in Washington.


The Media


With the way things are now, the liberal media has everyone typecast. Go to Google and search for “Ted Kennedy and lion” and see how many results you get. “Lion” is a nice nickname to have. By comparison, how do you think former Governor Sarah Palin has been portrayed? Of course, caricatures are reversed if the medium is conservative talk radio. Term limits will bring in more newcomers and the media can’t pigeonhole all of them easily or quickly enough to poison the debate. But they will try.  


Some Middling Objections to Term Limits


There is an objection that this will leave us with lame-duck congressmen. This is completely unfounded. I suppose it’s possible for a president to be a lame-duck in his last term, but congressmen get to cast votes on legislation no matter what term they’re in. For that matter, have lame-duck presidents ever hurt us any?


Another reason why lame-duck congressmen won’t be a problem is that a term limit of 10 years doesn’t guarantee a politician will get 10 years. He can still get voted out at any time. Common sense will tell you that when someone has put in that much time and effort to reach office they aren’t going to just sit there. They know they will only be there for a limited time and had better get things done.


Some might argue that politicians will just make connections with powerful people so they can get rich when they are done. Maybe, but that won’t be any worse than what we have now and at least we won’t be stuck with the same individual making a fool out of us for 50 years.


There is an argument that term limits will lead to unaccountability, extremism, or that it will radicalize politicians. This is the reverse of the lame-duck argument. Remember that they can still get voted out at any time. Seriously, could politicians be any more unaccountable than they already are?


People worry that a politician might get extreme in the last 2 years of his limit. Suppose an extremist Republican or Democrat makes it that far. In his final term he does everything he can to destroy the country. What do you think will happen when a fresh Republican runs against a fresh Democrat? Exactly, there will be plenty of pressure against extremism. Do nothing congressmen can still get defeated at any time and extremists might damage their party forever. The worst possible outcome is that we will get stuck with moderates who do just enough to get elected -- which is exactly what we have now. The difference is we will stand a chance of getting better people elected more often than just once every 50 years.


Term limits won’t radicalize anyone for 3 reasons:

First of all, isn’t that kind of what we want? Having politicians actually stand for something is why we elected them in the first place. The party platform is pretty good but the politicians accomplish none of it.


Second, if congressmen were limited to 5 terms then due to the random nature of things we would expect roughly 20% of them to be in their last term. The other 80% will help to keep the others in check.


Third, a limit of 2 terms doesn’t radicalize presidents.


There is an argument that if the term limit is 10 years, then 10 years will be the length of the term. In other words, new candidates will just wait until the incumbent’s 10-year period is up before running against another new candidate. That won’t happen because politics is about power and control and money in the greatest nation in the history of the world.


Here is a quick demonstration:

You are chairman of the Democratic Party and I am chairman of the Republicans. Assuming round numbers for easier figuring, you have 200 representatives and I have 200. Assuming all of them started in the House at the same time. You decide not to challenge for 10 years, but I challenge all of yours every 2 years. Assuming incumbents win at a 93% rate as stated earlier. At the end of year 2, I already hold an advantage in the House of 214 to 186.


A Few Basics


Here are a few basics on the issue that still seem to trip up some people. An individual is limited in each office, not in their person. After serving even a full 10 years in the House, a person could still run for Senate or a governorship. 


Just because a limit has been reached does not mean that the other major party automatically gets to fill that office. The next election will be between two challengers. This will put pressure on politicians to behave because if a politician did a respectable job then the candidate of the same party trying to take his place will promote the policies that made the previous one successful.


Some Minor Objections to Term Limits


Some people fret that along with all of the bad politicians; term limits will kick out the “good” ones too. Oh, Heaven forefend!


Some people think we might lose valuable experience. Political wisecrack Kinky Friedman has an apt aphorism, “Politics is the only field in which the more experience you have, the worse you get.” But for those worried about experience, consider the youngest possible age to be a representative is 25 years old. I believe plenty of them would make it to the limit and then make the natural move to the Senate and make it to the limit there. The total is 28 years of experience and they are 53 years old and then they could run for governor or president if they wanted. Most are far older than 25 when they first get to the House.  


Some people say we just need better-educated voters. This is a classic red herring. It’s an endless argument about just how much better educated do the voters need to be and how much more do we have to spend to educate them and how much do we need to raise taxes to pay for it.


Some people say we have a way to get rid of incumbents -- we have frequent elections. The percentage of incumbents that win re-election shows that frequent elections aren’t enough to get rid of long-term incumbents, therefore we need to have a debate about term limits.


Some people say the solution is to just vote for somebody else. But voters don’t want to vote for a candidate from the other party, we want our party platform represented by somebody new. If our politicians haven’t done anything for the past 30 years they aren’t going to start now.


Some people say if you don’t like a politician just use the recall process. It is a complicated process all its own. But here is all you need to know. No U.S. Congressman has ever been recalled. Not one, never.


In Conclusion


The best reason for term limits is to diminish bad behavior. The second best reason is to spite career politicians. Other solutions have been proposed, but if stopping elected-for-almost-a-lifetime politicians is the goal, then term limits is the only method that ends their careers with 100% certainty.

May 10, 2012