• Politics

Term Limits: No Magic Pill for Washington’s Woes

4 minute read
Jay Newton-Small / Washington

One of the most common laments one hears from voters — and there are a lot of them these days — is that members of Congress aren’t subject to term limits. There’s a perception, accurate in some cases, that longevity in office leads to corruption and that greater turnover would somehow fix Washington’s gridlock.

But one need only look at some states’ experience with term limits to see such a remedy is no magic pill: politicians who are term-limited often just use their temporary offices as stepping stones and don’t invest in the institutions.

Democracies as far back as ancient Greece and Rome have flirted with term limits; after all you don’t want to hand an elected official the same lifetime power of potential tyranny you just stripped from Caesar or King Louis XVI. When American democracy was being formed, many of its founders, including Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, supported congressional term limits, “to prevent every danger which might arise to American freedom by continuing too long in office the members of the Continental Congress,” as Jefferson wrote.

(See why Washington is tied up in knots.)

The recommendations weren’t, ultimately, included in the Constitution because the founding fathers saw a tradition of rotation forming. George Washington set the precedent of two terms in the White House and those in Congress so abhorred the idea of political power that a natural changing of the guard occurred until the turn of the 20th century. Representatives couldn’t wait to dispose of their duties and return home, as it was commonly held that “contact with the affairs of state is one of the most corrupting of the influences to which men are exposed,” wrote author James Fenimore Cooper.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death shortly after being re-elected to a fourth term prompted Congress to quickly pass a constitutional amendment limiting the Commander in Chief to two terms. The amendment was ratified in 1951, but moves to limit congressional terms 40 years later were struck down in 1995 by the Supreme Court.

By the end of the 20th century, movements had sprung up on the right and the left to set term limits and nearly every referendum on the issue passed by a 2-to-1 vote. “Term limits sever from time to time the natural comfortable tie between members and special interests in their district. They bring government closer to the people and improve citizen access to the process,” says Philip Blumel, president of U.S. Term Limits, the largest advocacy group in the field.

(See “Washington’s Time for Bipartisanship: Retirement.”)

But as America’s power expanded from a ragtag collection of 13 colonies to the world’s only superpower, so too did the responsibilities of the legislative branch. No longer can members of Congress convene for a few months in the spring while spending the rest of the year on their farms. The greater power has added bureaucracy and it often takes the clout and leverage of an elder statesman to push through legislation: just look at the prolific careers of Ted Kennedy or Everett Dirksen.

Currently 15 state legislatures and 36 governors are subject to term limits. “The experience in states, including California, has been negative: assembly members look to run for the state senate or Congress, Senators look for congressional seats, or lawmakers look out for cushy jobs in the private sector afterward, thus giving more power to the permanent staff. Bad idea,” says Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and co-author of The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track.

Newt Gingrich included a constitutional amendment to limit politicians to 12 years in both the House and the Senate in his 1994 Contract with America. But it was one plank of the contract that even Gingrich couldn’t push through the House: it failed two months into Gingrich’s speakership 227 to 204. A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority (at that time 290 votes were needed) plus a two-thirds majority in the Senate and it must be ratified by two-thirds of the states — making any changes to the current system unlikely in the near future.

Still, politicians should take the calls for term limits as a barometer of how unhappy the public is with the job they’re doing. Once more, term limits has become a rallying cry from the Tea Party movement to dozens of state initiatives that will be on the ballot come November.

See how real filibusters could fix the Senate.

See more about TIME and CNN’s Broken Government series.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com