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Thursday, April 18, 2024
The Observer

Why we don’t see term limits in Congress

On Tuesday, senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) announced that she would not be seeking re-election in 2024. This revelation should come as no surprise, as speculation about her departure from politics has been anticipated for some time now. Some prominent California Democrats even announced campaigns for Sen. Feinstein’s seat before the announcement, such as representatives Katie Porter and Adam Schiff.

Over the years, discussions about the oldest senator’s fitness for office mirrors the national debate over term limits for members of Congress. In many ways, the media treats Sen. Feinstein as an embodiment of the issue. Concerns over her declining mental capacity, her tenure in the senate (over thirty years!) and speaking bluntly on when she should’ve retired are the same talking points employed when discussing term limits. Some articles about Sen. Feinstein discussed term limits themselves as a way to avoid future situations like the senator’s. As such, Sen. Feinstein’s retirement allows us to consider the term limits debate one more time.

Although we don’t have term limits for members of Congress, the debate over whether to have them has occurred throughout American history. Even at the founding, the framers argued over whether term limits should be included in the Constitution. In “Federalist No. 62,” we find opposition to term limits. Their argument was that governing effectively requires elected officials to be in office long enough to acquire “a knowledge of the means by which” to be strong leaders. Other framers reasoned that because representatives only served two-year terms, term limits aren’t necessary. If that failed, the electorate could force politicians into retirement by voting them out of office.

After the founding, the debate over term limits didn’t rise to the national level again until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt broke precedent and was elected to four terms. Since then, various senators and representatives have advocated for term limits to no avail. We even see these efforts today. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) recently submitted legislation to add congressional term limits to the Constitution. Additionally, part of Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) concessions to far-right Republicans included a floor vote on term limits. 

There’s also vast public support for the measure. According to a 2021 survey, 80% of voters are in favor of such a constitutional amendment, including 87% of Republicans and 73% of Democrats. There’s more agreement on term limits than abortion, gun control, health careand more. On an issue with such vast public and bipartisan support, we’d expect this to be one of the few pieces of legislation to pass with ease. The lack of success raises the question of why term limits haven’t been instituted.

Research can point to three obstacles that have prevented the passage of term limit legislation. First, a lack of substantial resources prevents adequate momentum to pass any proposal regarding term limits. Scholars note that it’s often one or a few members of Congress who advocate heavily for term limits. Even then, it’s among a number of other congressional reforms that tend to take precedent. For instance, Speaker McCarthy also conceded a number of other reforms to the House’s governing rules, likely leaving term limits on the backburner. Sen. Cruz’s bill was introduced less than a month ago, so we can’t expect much movement at this point. However, if it’s anything like his other term limits resolutions, it won’t get far. His previous efforts, whether under a Democratic or Republican Senate, didn’t get past the committee stage. Although we’ve seen term limits proposed throughout history, there simply aren’t enough elected officials supporting it to move forward.

Second, the political reality of Congress imposing term limits on itself diminishes any hope of it actually happening. There is little reason to suspect that individuals who ordinarily act out of self-interest would willingly act against their personal benefit, especially the U.S. Congress. Ironically, the last time Congress imposed term limits was when a president was elected four times. At that point, Congress wasn’t reflecting the will of the people at all by limiting the power of a popular president. Now, when the public does support term limits, we see no movement because it affects members of Congress. When we do see action on term limits, it’s often minimal and primarily done for press coverage, especially for congressional candidates who want to brand themselves as anti-establishment.

Third, the logistics behind an amendment on congressional term limits presents an enormous hurdle. The process of amending the Constitution itself is already challenging, requiring either a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress or a convention called by two-thirds of the state legislatures. Then, either three-fourths of the states or delegates at the convention must ratify the amendment. With the Constitution only being ratified twenty-seven times in U.S. history and polarization in Congress at its highest in decades, we can see why this is extremely unlikely to happen. This also assumes that elected officials can agree on the exact number of terms a representative or senator may serve.

The lack of substantial momentum on congressional term limits reveals that Congress is often unresponsive to public opinion. This is especially disappointing on an issue with such vast support in the American electorate. This points to a larger issue of how the legislative branch can be better structured to serve the people of this country, but that requires a much longer column.

Blake Ziegler is a senior at Notre Dame studying political science, philosophy and constitutional studies. He enjoys writing about Judaism, the good life, pressing political issues and more. Outside of The Observer, Blake serves as president of the Jewish Club and a teaching assistant for God and the Good Life. He can be reached at @NewsWithZig on Twitter or bziegler@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.