What Would the Founding Fathers Do About Congressional Term Limits Today


The first of the Liberty Amendments listed in Mark Levin's new book is "An Amendment to Establish Term Limits for Members of Congress." The proposed amendment has two sections. The first section expressly states that no individual can serve in the United States Congress for more than 12 years total, meaning that if you as a candidate so choose to attempt to serve in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, your total time in Congress cannot exceed 12 years. 

If you break this number down, as an elected official in Congress you could serve up to six two year terms in the House of Representatives exclusively, two six year terms in the Senate exclusively, or one term in the Senate and three terms in the House of Representatives or vice-versa. You get the picture.

Section two of this amendment is intended for current congressional office holders and simply states that if upon ratification of this proposed amendment, you have already exceeded 12 years in Congress, you may complete your current term, but are not eligible for reelection thereafter.    

The topic of congressional term limits has been a hot button political issue since the early 1990s when grass roots organizations across the country managed to put an open ended ballot question regarding term limits on the ballots in 24 states. Voters in eight of these states returned results in favor of term limits. 

During the 1994 Midterm Elections that returned Republican majorities to both houses of Congress since 1954, a large part of the GOP's Contract with America focused on the implementation of term limits in Congress. During the following Congress, a proposed constitutional amendment similar to Levin's was brought to vote on the floor but failed to garner the 2/3 majority to send the proposed constitutional amendment to the states (the bill only passed with a 227-204 majority). To further set back the cause of term limits; the United States Supreme Court ruled in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton (1995) that it was unconstitutional for the individual states to impose term limits on their federally elected representatives.

Despite these setbacks, the debate for congressional term limits rages on and has even met with limited success over the past few decades with five states passing resolutions at the state wide level asking Congress to pass an amendment implementing term limits for members of Congress. The most recent of these states's to express support for congressional term limits was the Florida legislature in 2012.

So is Levin onto something when he passionately argues for congressional term limits? Levin concedes that there is nothing wrong with continually returning elected representatives to Congress if the people think that they are doing an adequate job representing their constituents, but later states that the longer the representatives' tenure in Congress, the longer such officials push for gerrymandered political districts to make reelection easier and ear marks to return federal funding to their home district (whether a good or bad thing is a debate for another time). Levin also cites Ronald Rotunda, a Chapman University law professor who rather jokingly admits that office rotation in the British House of Lords and the former Soviet Politburo has a higher rotation than that of the United States Congress. 

One can continually make the argument that power corrupts, or that by ceaselessly electing the same representatives to Congress, they grow complacent and removed from those who elect them, but what did the Framers and Founding Fathers have to say about term limits?

During the 18th century, many of the colonies such as Pennsylvania, Virginia, Delaware, New York, Massachusetts, and South Carolina all had some sort of provision that required office rotation such as flat out term limits, or not being able to serve consecutive terms in their respective legislatures. In fact, the United States' first governing document, The Articles of Confederation included a provision that stated "no person shall be capable of being a delegate for more than three years in any term of six years...”

During the ratification debates of the new federal Constitution, although not present during the Constitutional Convention, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to James Madison on the principles of office rotation stating: "I dislike, and strongly dislike ... the abandonment, in every instance, of the principle of rotation in office, and most particularly in the case of the President...” 

Clearly, the delegates of the Constitutional Convention did not consider congressional term limits a serious enough proposal to be considered in the new Constitution in the early days of the republic since serving in Congress was largely seen as a part time job that came secondary to each representatives respective job in their home state (Congress only met part time throughout the year for much of the early history of the United States). In fact, office turnover in Congress did not become a serious issue until the early years of the 20th century when Professor Mark P. Petraca points out that in 1901, the average term of members of the House of Representatives rose above two terms. 

With the passing of the Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's unparalleled four terms in office did Congress decide to curb the powers of the national executive to the historical precedent of two, four-year terms. For all intents and purposes, I consider the Twenty-Second Amendment to be a huge success.  Sure, modern presidents are concerned about reelection starting during their first term, but second term president's in my subjective belief, are much more concerned with governing on their principles than being concerned with their popularity. 

If we as a nation can apply this standard to the presidency, why not apply it to Congress? The biggest argument against congressional term limits is one that I will concede is good on paper. By limiting the number of terms that our elected officials can serve, we disallow our members of Congress to really become as knowledgeable on the issues they will be investigating on their committee assignments. It is contended that term limits would limit our members of Congress from specializing on committee assignments and lead to more irresponsible governing. 

This opinion, in my view is outdated and behind the times.  As any millennial can tell you, we live in the 21st century where access to knowledge through technology is easier than ever. Not only does the United States Congress have a fully competent and knowledgeable Congressional Research Service working to assist members and their staff in the Library of Congress, but more and more congressional staffers are working for their bosses with higher degrees such as masters and law degrees. Implementing congressional term limits would not send our government into a standstill.

In all practicality, the biggest roadblock to implementing an amendment for congressional term limits is members of Congress themselves. As a member of Congress, why would you want to pass an amendment limiting your own power? That is why many of the proposed Liberty Amendments would have to be implemented at the state, instead of federal level (more on this at a later part of the series).