Politics & Policy

The Return of Term Limits

House members on the Capitol Hill steps. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty)

A Gallup poll released last Friday found that a full 75 percent of Americans believe that corruption in government is widespread. That’s up by nine percentage points since 2009, when only 66 percent felt that way.

So it’s no surprise that a populist revolt is in full swing. Bernie Sanders, a socialist who rails against government ties with Wall Street, is leading front-runner Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire. Three Republicans who have never held office — Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson — are way ahead of veteran GOP governors and senators in the race for the GOP nomination.

A recurring theme in the campaigns of several Republicans this year is support for term limits. Donald Trump characteristically won’t address the issue, telling CBS’s Face the Nation: “The biggest reform is to get competent people in office. I mean that’s to me the biggest reform we could make.” But Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson have made support for term limits part of their platforms. Carson said: “We must encourage innovation and ingenuity to improve the state of our nation. Term limits create more opportunities for fresh ideas.” Carson, along with fellow GOP candidates Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz, go beyond calling for term limits on Congress: They propose extending them to Supreme Court justices as well.

The gulf between incumbent officeholders and the American people is never bigger than on the issue of term limits.

Other more “establishment” Republicans also support term limits. Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana is a fan, and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker recently said in New Hampshire: “A decade is about as much as you can do in [the] exact same position before you start to become complacent. It’s even more true in government. . . . People start looking over their shoulders instead of looking ahead.”

Jeb Bush said last month that term limits in his native Florida led to a “significantly higher quality” of legislature, as more young people and women were elected and brought with them energy to tackle the status quo.

One of them was Marco Rubio, a former speaker of Florida’s House who is now a U.S. senator from Florida and an enthusiastic backer of term limits. His own career is an advertisement for them. As Josh Goodman of Governing magazine wrote in 2010:

Rubio would not have been speaker of the house in 2007 [at age 35] if it weren’t for term limits. He might not have been a state legislator at all.

In Florida, House members only can serve eight years before they have to leave office. Without that rule, it’s possible that the South Florida delegation would have been filled with politically untouchable 25-year veterans. A young politician like Rubio, who was elected to the legislature before he turned 30, might not have had a chance.

The gulf between incumbent officeholders and the American people is never bigger than on the issue of term limits. A Gallup survey from January 2013 found that 75 percent of Americans — including huge majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents — support term limits on Congress.

In the poll, young people (under 30) and older Americans (over 65) both gave the concept 74 percent approval. Blacks favored it even more than did whites, and women more than men. Support is greater now than it was at the height of the term-limits movement in the 1990s. Back then, Martin Plissner, the late political director for CBS News, told me he had “never seen an issue on which there [was] so little demographic variation.”

#share#In the 1990s, 21 states limited the terms of their own members of Congress by popular vote. The movement was close to reaching a tipping point at which enough members of Congress would have been covered by term limits that they probably would have voted for such restrictions on all members so no one would be disadvantaged.

Then, in a blow against federalism, a narrow 5–4 majority on the Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that states lacked the power to block long-serving congressional incumbents from appearing on their ballots. Thereafter, imposing term limits on federal offices would require a constitutional amendment similar to the one that was ratified in 1951 limiting presidents to two terms. The decision was hailed behind closed doors all over Washington. Entrenched elites in both parties were terrified of pro-term-limit voters and preferred that the Court do their dirty work for them.

Attempts at extending term limits are still popular even when courts occasionally strike them down.

While term limits at the national level went into hibernation, the limits remained on state legislators in more than a dozen states and on officials in hundreds of local jurisdictions. Thirty-seven of the 50 governors are bound by term limits. Forty-nine states have either term limits or mandatory retirement ages for their supreme-court justices. And the mayors of nine of the ten most populous cities are term-limited. Attempts at extending term limits are still popular even when courts occasionally strike them down.

In Illinois last year, advocates for term limits collected 600,000 signatures to put the issue up for a vote, but a court ruling threw the measure off the ballot. As columnist George Will has written, “the political class’s reaction to term limits is a powerful, indeed sufficient, argument for them.”

#related#The fact that term limits are so common at the local level gives Representative Ron DeSantis, a Florida Republican, hope that a constitutional amendment on term limits could eventually succeed. He would exempt incumbent lawmakers from term limits to help increase support for the measure. “An approach that phases in congressional term limits reconciles the self-interest of members of Congress with the public’s desire to see these changes enacted,” he says. If Congress refuses to pass a term-limit amendment, two-thirds of the states have power under the Constitution to call a convention to force consideration of the measure — the method by which the popular election of senators finally became a reality in 1913.

There is another vehicle that might revive the question of term limits. Should one of the many candidates who profess support for them become president in 2017, his or her Supreme Court nominees just might provide the votes to revisit the Court decision that halted their progress two decades ago.

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for National Review.


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