Term Limits in the United States

What are Term Limits?

Term limits are statutory limits that are set in place by the United States Constitution, determining how long an elected politician can serve in office. Term limits are typically used to stop an elected politician from remaining in power for life, which helps avoid tyranny and dictatorship.

Does the United States Have Term Limits?

Presidents

The United States did not originally have any term limits implemented when the Constitution was first written. The United States went 163 years without any term limits in place. Then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected into office, and was elected three more times, making him the only President to ever serve more than two terms. Every president before him had followed in George Washington’s footsteps of only serving two four-year terms, which was an unspoken rule until Congress ratified the 22nd Amendment in 1951, making it official. The amendment states that a President cannot serve longer than two four-year terms, plus two additional years for succession. 

Vice Presidents

Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution states that a Vice President can serve as many four-year terms as they want. This means a person can serve as the Vice President for multiple Presidents (if the President chooses them as their running mate, of course).

House of Representatives Members

Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution dictates that House Members can serve as many as many two-year terms as they want, as long as they are elected by the people.

Average Length in Office (2018): 8.6 years

Have 12+ Years Experience: 24%

Average Reelection Success Rate of Members: 91%

Longest Serving Member Currently: Don Young, 46 years, 1973-Now

Longest Serving Member Ever: John Hingell, 59 years and 21 days, December 1955-January 2015

Senators

Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution mandates that a senator can serve as many six-year terms as they want, as long as they are elected by the people.

Average Length in Office (2018): 10.1 years

Have 12+ Years Experience: 26%

Average Reelection Success Rate of Senators: 84%

Longest Serving Senator Currently: Patrick Leahy, 44 years, 1975-Now

Longest Serving Senator Ever: Robert Byrd, 51 years and 76 days, January 1959-May 2010

Supreme Court Justices

Article III, Section 1 of the Constitution states that federal judges, “shall hold their Offices during good Behavior.” This means as long as a judge keeps their nose clean, they can keep their seat. This is typically referred to as being appointed for life. Justices are appointed by the President, and only exit through resignation, impeachment, or death.

 

How Would The United States Implement Term Limits?

Term limits have been a topic of discussion at almost every congressional session that’s been held since 1943. Though many bills have been brought to the table, none of them have passed. If the United States were to implement congressional term limits, an amendment would have to be passed and ratified. In order for that to happen, a bill needs to be drafted, then approved by 2/3 of the Senate and 2/3 of the House, and then lastly approved by 38 states to be ratified and put into the Constitution. There is one alternative, though, if Congress vote no on implementing a term limits amendment. The Term Limits Convention allows 34 state legislatures to convene a meeting to draft an amendment that lists term limits for Congress. This would bypass a veto from Congress, allowing the people and the states to enact their own congressional term limits. 

Should the United States Implement Congressional Term Limits?

This is the debate that many politicians are having, and many Americans are also partaking in the debate. The debate comes from two main points: the fear of politician corruption and gridlock –– a point where no progress can be made due to disagreement in positions and refusal to compromise, meaning there is difficulty in passing laws and getting new ideas in Congress –– and the fear of removing experienced politicians, limiting voter choices during elections. Some believe term limits would be beneficial, while others believe they would be detrimental. There is no definitive answer to how term limits would effect Congress and US politics in general, but there are pros and cons to term limits. Some believe the pros out-weight the cons, while some view it vice versa.

What are the Pros to Term Limits?

  • Legislation can get passed faster.
    • Legislation takes a long time to pass because elected politicians have to begin their reelection campaign shortly after getting into office, putting a lot of their focus on that.
    • Term limits would allow quicker legislation to get passed by giving elected politicians the opportunity to make effective legislation that they fully focused on.
  • Limits Corruption.
    • Elected politicians have less time to become faithless.
    • Term limits would help by bringing in new politicians that do not yet have the knowledge on how to persuade the governing body for personal gain.
  • Allows new politicians to have a better chance at having a desired position.
    • Congress works on a seniority system that benefits experienced politicians, and leaves new ones struggling to find positions on less desired committees instead.
      • This encourages voters to keep the same elected politicians in office due to their economical influences.
    • Term limits would allow new politicians to get their foot in the door and get a decent position, so they can properly govern.
  • Limits corporate lobbying.
    • Experienced politicians listen to corporate lobbyists because large corporations can provide sufficient funds to push for the legislation they want set in place.
    • Term limits could reduce lobbying because new politicians are more skeptical to lobbyists because they are new to Congress.
  • Stops sly political moves.
    • Some bills get passed in Congress that address a main issue end up having a handful of other actions, funding requests, activities, etc. that do not pertain to the main issue being addressed. These typically go unnoticed.
    • Term limits would reduce the amount of unclean bills getting passed by encouraging ethical behavior.
  • Can bring more voters into the voting booth.
    • If people know that a candidate will get re-elected again due to his seniority, they are less likely to go out and vote for another candidate because they feel its useless.
    • Term limits would change that because a candidate can only be in office for so long, so there is more incentive for people to go out and vote for the candidate they feel is best.
  • Brings new ideas into Congress.
    • New politicians are fresh and full of new ideas and legislation, but they struggle to get their ideas heard when there are numerous experienced politicians in office taking control and pushing their legislation through.
    • Term limits would take experienced politicians out of office, allowing new ideas to come in with the new politicians.
  • Would make serving in Congress a civic act of duty again.
    • Politicians make their position in Congress their career, rather than making it an act of service to the United States.
    • Term limits would eliminate the career positioning because they could only be in office for so long.


What are the Cons to Term Limits?

  • Forces good politicians out of Congress.
    • New politicians would need time to learn to navigate the ropes of Congress, navigate networking relationships, handle office management, and many other things as they serve their term.
    • Term limits would limit how much experience an politician could gain while in office, and also force experienced politicians out of office, slowing progress for legislation.
  • Elections are already a way to get an elected politician out of office.
    • Term limits take away from the voters who choose to elect the same politicians each election. 
  • Legislation could be rushed and have unexpected/unintended consequences.
    • Because politicians are on a deadline, they would have to rush to get their agendas passed.
  • Politicians can become careless.
    • Politicians can choose to ignore what their communities want in order to follow their own agendas because even if they upset their communities, they will be out of office soon anyway, so it does not matter.
    • Politicians that are unmotivated can be more easily persuaded by lobbyists.
    • Term limits can lessen politicians’ motivation to be authentic representatives.
  • Networking benefits would be lost.
    • Having a strong network in Congress can increase efficiency.
    • New politicians would be lacking congressional relationships, which can be crucial to working in Congress and passing legislation. 
    • Term limits would not allow strong networking relationships to be built because politicians would not have enough time in office for it to make an impact.
  • Deference behavior would still exist.
    • New politicians tend to defer to experienced politicians when creating legislation and passing laws.
    • Power would still be consolidated into the experienced politicians, but there are less of them due to term limits, which can lead to policymaking problems down the road
  • Limits incentives for gaining policy expertise.
    • There is less pressure to gain experience on specific issues because the knowledge will not be useful after the politician’s term is up.
  • Holding elections is expensive.
    • With term limits, there are more elections, which means more money is spent to hold them.
  • Term limits have little legislative support.
    • Bills and amendments for congressional term limits have been introduced in almost every congressional session since 1943, and none of them have passed.
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