On Their Own Terms

In the absence of term limits, U.S. Senators and Representatives can place their own re-election interests above the needs of their constituents.


Courtesy of Architect of the Capitol

The gridlock in Congress and the jaw-dropping reluctance of some lawmakers to stand up to injustice may be attributable to one factor — they can be re-elected indefintely.

By Emma Kim, North Allegheny Senior High School

51 years. That is how long Senator Robert Byrd was in office. He represented West Virginia from 1953 until he died in 2010.

While that may seem like a ridiculously long amount of time for one man to hold one office, it’s not all that uncommon in the United States. With no term limits in the Senate or House of Representatives, Congressional politicians are able to accumulate power over the years, if not decades.

Senators serve six-year terms, and one-third of the Senate is usually up for reelection on even years, while representatives are up for reelection every two years. Even though senators and representatives still have to win their state or district at the end of each term, it is a lot easier for them to defend their seat as incumbents, especially if their tenure is long.  As the 535 members of Congress who make and shape our laws are practically immune from being forced to step out of office, they are likely to become archaic and outdated.

The President, for example, is limited to two four-year terms so they cannot accumulate too much power.  Why, then, is the same reasoning not used for members of Congress?  

In 1995, the Supreme Court dealt with the issue of term limits.  At the time, 23 states had put state-imposed term limits on their members of Congress.  If more states followed suit, it would most likely have led to a constitutional amendment.

But an Arkansas politician challenged the state’s law, leading to U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton.  In the end, the Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 decision that citizens should not be able to impose term limits on their members of Congress by way of state laws.  The court, however, allowed room for a constitutional amendment.  

And judging from the actions of Congress in recent years, now is the time for such an amendment to be ratified. 

The problem is, amendments start with Congress.  

Two-thirds of both the House and Senate must approve of a proposed amendment.  Therefore, the very problem that the amendment addresses has to be passed by people who are reluctant to limit their own power.  After being approved by Congress, ratification requires the approval of three-fourths of the states.  Of course, this last step does not even matter if the amendment does not get past the first round of Congress.  

The need for term limits is not limited to the federal level. Governors in 36 states have various different types of term limits while the other 14 have none.  Since mayors are at the municipal level, they have different rules, but nine out of ten of the largest cities also have term limits.

Along with Congress, there are also no term limits for the Supreme Court.  The nine justices get to serve for life, unless they are impeached or they retire.  Justices are nominated by the President and approved with a majority by the Senate.  Since they can serve basically for as long as they wish, they can be incentivized to step down when someone from their political party holds the presidency, blocking ideological change on the court.  

The arguments in favor of unlimited terms might sound tempting at first. After all, term limits do in fact reduce voters’ options, and they can result in kicking out effective and experienced lawmakers.

But the policy works quite well for presidents and state governors, leading a majority of Americans to voice their support for congressional term limits, too.

If the last week has taught us anything, it’s that we need politicians who are less afraid to enact change, who welcome new ideas, and who are more resistant to corruption. If they do not have to worry about being re-elected indefinitely, we just might begin to see such leaders.

This story was originally published on The Uproar on January 15, 2021.