Term limits

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Term limits generally refers to restrictions placed on the number of terms an elected official may serve, regardless of their ability to be reelected. This page deals with term limits in the U.S. Congress.


Historically, term limits have figured most prominently in the executive branch of the U.S. government. While the Constitution did not originally mandate limits for the office of the presidency, George Washington, the first president (1789-1797), started the tradition of self-imposed limits by serving only two terms.[1] The precedent was followed for 144 years, until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for and won a third term in 1940 (he would eventually win a fourth).[2] In 1951, Congress passed and 41 states ratified the Twenty-Second Amendment, which forbade any citizen from being elected president more than twice (or once if he/she had previously served more than 2 years of another presidential term).[3]

In Congress, however, no tradition or statute regarding term limits has prevailed since the ratification of the Constitution. During the American Revolution, delegates to the Continental Congress were limited to three one-year terms over a period of six years under the Articles of Confederation. When Rhode Island defied the rule, however, Congress dropped the issue. In the years leading up to the Constitutional Convention, the Founding Fathers were divided over the principle of “rotation in office,” as congressional term limits were then called. Washington and Thomas Jefferson favored it, while James Madison and Alexander Hamilton opposed it. Ultimately, term limits were excluded from the Constitution.[4]

Until the Civil War, there was little reason for term limits to become an issue, as few members of Congress chose to serve more than two terms. This began to change as Congress organized permanent committees, which were chaired by the members with the most seniority. With the incentive to increase their power in Congress, many members began serving for longer periods of time. By the twentieth century, it was not uncommon for service in the House or Senate to be one’s primary career.[5] Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) holds the record for time in the Senate; having been first elected in 1958 and continuing through 2006 (Byrd has announced he will seek yet another term in 2006). In fact, in the 109th Congress (2005-2007), Byrd was one of four active senators with over thirty-five years of experience in the Senate.[6] The others were:

In the House, Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.) holds the record for the longest service in the House, having spent slightly over 53 years in the chamber. He is followed by Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who was first elected in 1955 and has continued to serve through 2006.[10]

Arguments in favor of term limits

Many argue that career politicians have negative implications for democracy. Some cite the fact that since the end of World War II, incumbents have been reelected a very high percentage of the time. In the House, for instance, the re-election rate for incumbents was 93 percent from 1952-2000.[11] It was only marginally lower in the Senate, as it averaged 74 percent from 1946-64, 76% between 1966-1984 and 87.4% from 1986-1998.[12] The cause for this, according to some, is that while incumbents must always be reelected, they enjoy certain advantages over challengers. For example, they typically have greater name recognition and better opportunities to raise large amounts of campaign money.[13] These advantages, some argue, deter potential candidates from challenging incumbents, leading to elections that do not truly feature high quality choices for the electorate. Term limits, therefore, help ensure that citizens will frequently have new choices when selecting their leaders.[14]

Arguments against term limits

Some argue that term limits are undesirable. Critics cite the notion that in a democracy, citizens should be able to choose their leaders without restrictions.[15] In addition, it has been argued that term limits increase the influence of lobbyists, for these professionals have an easier time influencing new and inexperienced officials. Also, some believe that term limits do not give legislators enough time to grow accustomed to their position and reach a point where they can be most effective.[16]

Terms limits in Congress

The notion of congressional term limits gained considerable attention in the early 1990s. In 1992, 14 states passed initiatives limiting the tenure of federal legislators. Two of these, however, were struck down by state courts. In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear a challenge to an Arkansas term limits law.[17]

Contract with America

Following the 1954 midterm elections, Democrats maintained control of the House into the mid-1990s.[18] In 1994, Republicans released the “Contact with America,” comprising a list of promises that if elected, a GOP-controlled Congress would pursue. One of the legislative promises was an amendment to the Constitution stipulating that no member of the Senate could serve more than two terms, while members of the House would be limited to anywhere between three and six terms. (Read the full “Contract with America”).

Republicans in favor of pursuing the amendment argued that a law would not suffice, for it was quite possible that the Supreme Court would strike it down as unconstitutional.[19] In addition to advocating the amendment, several GOP candidates promised that they would limit their own terms in Congress independent of any legislation forcing them to do so.[20] In 1992, several members had also pledged to limit their own terms.[21]

Republicans did indeed take control of both the House and Senate in the 1994 elections. While the party was largely united in its quest to limit congressional terms, some did not agree. Rep. Richard Armey (R-Texas), the new majority leader of the House, stated, "If we Republicans can straighten out the House, then I think maybe the nation's desire for term limits will be diminished."[22] Twenty-year House veteran Henry Hyde bluntly criticized the idea, arguing "In time of real crisis, we need people of experience."[23]

Despite the opposition of some, an amendment was ultimately introduced to the floor. On March 29, 1995, the House voted 227-204 in favor of an amendment limiting senators to two terms and House members to six. The vote, however, fell short of the two-thirds majority (290) needed for a constitutional amendment to pass.[24]

Term Limits Constitutional Amendment

March 29, 1995
Failed, 227-204, view details
Dem: 38-163 opposed, GOP: 189-40 in favor, Ind: 1 opposed

On May 22, 1995, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in U.S. Term Limits v. Thorton that states could not adopt term limits for federal legislators (22 states had done so by this point). Doing so would require a Constitutional Amendment.[25] Given that the amendment had already failed by a wide margin, and that the newly-elected Congress had several other initiatives for which it intended to pursue, the idea of term-limits soon faded.

Non-binding pledges

As noted above, several congressional candidates in 1992 and 1994 pledged to limit their own terms if elected to Congress. While this trend was not as prevalent in the following election cycles, new pledges were offered by candidates as late as 2000.

In 2000, each member that promised to serve only three terms in 1994 was due to retire. In addition, several members elected in 1992 had pledged to serve only four terms and were also due to leave office. In all, ten Republicans and one Democrat were due to step-down following the 106th Congress (1999-2001). Ultimately, eight of the eleven kept their pledge. The others, listed below, broke their promise and sought reelection[26]:

  • Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) - Continued to serve until 2005.[27]
  • Rep. Martin Meehan (D-Mass.) - Continued to serve through the 109th Congress (2005-2007) and announced he will seek reelection in 2006.
  • Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.) - Continued to serve until 2005.[28]

Among those that kept the pledge was Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who was eventually elected to the Senate in 2004.

In 2002, five House Republicans reached their self-imposed limits stemming from a pledge they signed in 1996 with an advocacy group, Americans for Limited Terms. Only one of the five, Rep. Ron Lewis (R-Ky.) broke the pledge. He continued to serve in the House through 2006 and announced he would seek reelection again in that year. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) left the House after serving three terms, and was eventually elected to the Senate in 2004.[29]

In 2004, eighteen members of Congress were due to leave office as a result of previously made promises. The following nine, however, broke their pledge and ran for reelection again in the November elections[30]:

In 2006, each House member but Strickland (who instead ran in the Ohio gubernatorial election) announced he would run for reelection again in the November elections.

In 2006, ten members of Congress (nine House reps. and one senator) had reached their self-imposed term limits. Eight of the ten members had originally been elected in 1994 and signed the "Contract with America" pledge. Ultimately, all ten broke their pledge and decided to seek reelection in the November 2006 elections. The following is a list of the ten members, in addition to their respective justifications (if available) for breaking their agreement[32][33][34][35]:

* English claims to have supported the concept of term limits, but never made a personal pledge. His chief of staff, Robert Holste, has contacted U.S. Term Limits, the organization that originally reported English as among those breaking a pledge in 2006, and asked them to remove his name. The group, however, has refused to do so, arguing that his 1994 campaign statements are interpreted by them as a pledge.[43]

2006 elections

Of the ten members who broke their pledge to not seek reelection in 2006, only one, Gil Gutknecht, was defeated. Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.) narrowly defeated her Democratic opponent, Gary Trauner, by about 1,000 votes.[44][45]

2008 elections

So far two incumbents have announced whether they will honor their term limit pledge. Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Co.) announced on January 15, 2007 that he would not seek reelection to a 3rd term in the U.S. Senate. Allard had promised to limit himself to two terms in the Senate when he first ran for election in 1996. In announcing that he would not seek reelection Allard said, "I just didn't think I could back away from the (term limits) commitment. It is a matter of integrity and keeping your commitments. I have never wavered on that."[46] Allard was also facing a tough reelection battle against the well funded Rep. Mark Udall (D-Co.).

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.) has taken the opposite tack and is reneging on her pledge to only serve for 12 years. Collins, during a campaign appearance in 1996, answered "Yes" to a question about whether she would pledge to only serve 12 years in the Senate.[47] In 2002, Collins stated in a letter to a constituent her continued pledge to serve only 12 years in the Senate, "I intend to serve only two terms as I indicated in the Sanford forum six years ago."[48] On October 12, 2006 Collins stated that she was breaking her pledge and would seek another six year term in the Senate. Collins justified her new position stating that her viewpoint on seniority has changed, "At the time, I thought that 12 years, that two terms, would be enough. This was at the height of what I would call the frenzy over term limits."[49]

Public opinion

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in July 2003 found that 67% of Americans believed that term limits were a good idea.[50]

Articles and resources

Related SourceWatch articles


  1. Martin Kelly. "George Washington - First President of the United States," About.com.
  2. "Franklin D. Roosevelt," Marist College.
  3. "U.S. Constitution," FindLaw.
  4. "Bill of Right in Action," Constitutional Rights Foundation. July, 2000.
  5. "Bill of Right in Action," Constitutional Rights Foundation. July, 2000.
  6. "U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd," U.S. Senate.
  7. Ted Kennedy Website. U.S. Senate.
  8. Daniel Inouye Website. U.S. Senate.
  9. Ted Stevens Website. U.S. Senate.
  10. Bill Clinton, “Statement on the Death of Former Congressman Jamie Whitten,” The American Presidency Project, September 9, 1995.
  11. Charlie Cook, "Safe Seats Stunting Skills of Lawmakers," The Cook Political Report, December 1, 2001.
  12. Charlie Cook, "The Senate Reelection Equation," The Cook Political Report, March 30, 1999.
  13. James C. Miller III, "Incumbents Advantage," Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation, December 17, 1997.
  14. David Epstein and Peter Zemsky, "Money Talks: Deterring Quality Challengers in Congressional Elections ," American Political Science Review, June 1995.
  15. "Debate: Presidential Term Limits," CBS News, June 8, 2003.
  16. Mark P. Petracca, “Term Limits Work Just Fine, Thank You,” LA Times, July 23, 2006.
  17. "Citizen Legislature Act," U.S. House of Representatives.
  18. Andrea Stone. "Democrats hope to reclaim GOP-controlled House," USA Today. August 31, 2006.
  19. "Republican Contract with America," U.S. House of Representatives.
  20. Andrea Stone "Term-limit pledges get left behind," USA Today, April 12, 2006.
  21. Marc Birtel, “Term-limits: as the pledges come home to roost,” Campaigns and Elections, February, 1999.
  22. Doug Bandow, “Real Term Limits: Now More Than Ever,” Cato Institute, March 28, 1995.
  23. "Rep. Henry Hyde’s 1995 House speech in opposition to term limits," U.S. House of Representatives. March 29, 1995.
  24. “House rejects term-limits proposal on 227-204 vote,” Milwaukee Sentinel, 1995.
  25. "U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thorton," FindLaw.
  26. Marc Birtel, “Term-limits: as the pledges come home to roost,” Campaigns and Elections, February, 1999.
  27. "McInnis, Scott," Congressional Biographical Directory.
  28. Marc Birtel, “Term-limits: as the pledges come home to roost,” Campaigns and Elections, February, 1999.
  29. Marc Birtel, “Term-limits: as the pledges come home to roost,” Campaigns and Elections, February, 1999.
  30. Marc Birtel, “Term-limits: as the pledges come home to roost,” Campaigns and Elections, February, 1999.
  31. Marc Birtel, “Term-limits: as the pledges come home to roost,” Campaigns and Elections, February, 1999.
  32. Andrea Stone "Term-limit pledges get left behind," USA Today, April 12, 2006.
  33. Albert Eisele, “Term limits: RIP,” The Hill, March 9, 2005.
  34. “Hutchison picks re-election bid over Texas governor race,” Associated Press (delivered by USA Today), June 27, 2005.
  35. Rachel Kapochunas, "One Promise That's Safe to Break: The Term Limit Pledge," Congressional Quarterly, March 24, 2006.
  36. Andrea Stone "Term-limit pledges get left behind," USA Today, April 12, 2006.
  37. Albert Eisele, “Term limits: RIP,” The Hill, March 9, 2005.
  38. “Hutchison picks re-election bid over Texas governor race,” Associated Press (delivered by USA Today), June 27, 2005.
  39. Andrea Stone "Term-limit pledges get left behind," USA Today, April 12, 2006.
  40. Steve Kornacki, “LoBiondo changes mind on term limits, says he'll run again in '06,” PoliticsNJ.com, June 7, 2003.
  41. Sylvia A. Smith, “Clock keeps on ticking,” The Journal Gazette, August 6, 2006.
  42. Andrea Stone "Term-limit pledges get left behind," USA Today, April 12, 2006.
  43. Rachel Kapochunas, "One Promise That's Safe to Break: The Term Limit Pledge," Congressional Quarterly, March 24, 2006.
  44. Sea Stachura, "Gutknecht looks to the future," Minnesota Public Radio. December 20, 2006.
  45. Ben Neary. "Cubin wins seventh term; Trauner undecided on recount," Casper Star Tribune. November 15, 2006.
  46. M.E. Sprengelmeyer. "Allard: No third term," Rocky Mountain News. January 15, 2007.
  47. "Collins' Pledge," Turn Maine Blue.
  48. "Susan Collins Letter," Turn Maine Blue. September 6, 2002.
  49. David Farmer. "Collins to seek 3rd term," Sun Journal. October 13, 2006.
  50. Andrea Stone "Term-limit pledges get left behind," USA Today, April 12, 2006.

External resources

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