It’s Time for Congressional Term Limits

It’s Time for Congressional Term Limits

© David Burton 2008


     The time has come to enact legislation limiting the amount of time any politician can serve in the Senate and the House of Representatives. We’ve done this for the office of president and its time to do the same for Congress. Once ensconced in office, these office-holders build up enormous financial war chests and become beholden to special interest groups that contribute to their elections, primarily financially, but also through election support, public relations support, and so forth. The independence of these long-term politicians, at best, becomes highly suspect. They owe too much to too many. At the same time, the “elected-for-life” politicians tend to get lazy in carrying out the obligations of their offices. We hear the term “gridlock” used more and more frequently to describe what is happening in Washington. One cause of gridlock is lack of pressure on congressmen to perform, to actually do something useful. Why stick one’s neck out and become vulnerable in the next election when a “do-nothing” philosophy offers the safe road to another term in office? After all, continued re-election becomes less dependent upon performance and more dependent upon name recognition and the deep pockets that fund their re-election campaigns.

     The difficulty of driving entrenched Congressmen from office discourages young and bright office seekers from attempting to displace the incumbents. This does a disservice to the country and the electorate. We need to encourage the best and the brightest to assume positions of leadership in the operation of our government. We don’t need to turn the House and the Senate into retirement homes for elected politicians.

     The increased cost of energy as reflected in gasoline prices, heating oil prices and the prices of natural gas for home and industrial use “highlight the real cost of political gridlock in Washington.” For all the political posturing, finger-pointing and hand-wringing and “For all the talk of hybrids, hydrogen, synthetics, offshore drilling and solar and other alternative energy sources, the nation remains addicted to fossil fuels.” This “reflects the failure of presidents and Congress for 28 years to seriously address energy issues.” It’s time to throw out the entrenched politicians who have grown fat, dumb and happy, knowing that they are probably ensconced in a lifetime position with little likelihood of their being voted out of office. It’s time to “vote for candidates committed to confronting the {energy} challenge by working together and moving forward.” (Ref. 1)

     The concept of term limits for elected officials dates back to the American Revolution, and prior to that to the democracies and republics of antiquity. The council of 500 in ancient Athens rotated its entire membership annually, as did the ephorate in ancient Sparta. The ancient Roman Republic featured a system of elected magistrates -- tribunes of the plebs, aediles, quaestors, praetors, and consuls -- who served a single term of one year, with reelection to the same magistracy forbidden for ten years.

     In June 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee of thirteen to examine forms of government for the impending union of the states. Among the proposals was that from the State of Virginia, written by Thomas Jefferson, urging a limitation of tenure, "to prevent every danger which might arise to American freedom by continuing too long in office the members of the Continental Congress....” (Ref. 2) The committee made recommendations, which as regards congressional term-limits were incorporated unchanged into the Articles of Confederation (1781-1789). The fifth Article stated that "no person shall be capable of being a delegate [to the continental congress] for more than three years in any term of six years." Also, article IX, paragraph 5, of the Articles of Confederation provided that, "no person be allowed to serve in the office of president more than one year in any term of three years."(Ref. 2)

     In contrast to the Articles of Confederation, the federal constitution convention at Philadelphia omitted mandatory term-limits from the second national frame of government, i.e. the U.S. Constitution of 1787 to the present.

     Here in Massachusetts, we have the “Lion of the Senate”, Ted Kennedy, who has served for nearly half a century and might be better characterized as the “Dinosaur of the Senate”. Our “junior” Senator, John Kerry, has been in office for nearly 2-1/2 decades. Currently, there are 57 members of the House of Representatives that have been in office for 20 years or more and there are 27 senators that have also been in office for 20 or more years. Some 9 U.S. Senators and Representatives have been in office for more than 36 years.

  • Robert Byrd (House and Senate) - 55 years
  • John Dingell (House) - 52 years
  • Daniel Inouye (House and Senate) - 49 years
  • Ted Kennedy (Senate) - 45 years
  • John Conyers (House) - 43 years
  • Ted Stevens (Senate) - 39 years
  • Dave Obey (House) - 39 years
  • Charles B. Rangel (House) - 37 years
  • Bill Young (House) - 37 years
     The U.S. Senate typifies the trend for office holders to remain in power for decades. “Senator Robert Byrd won his first election in 1946 and is the longest-serving member in the Senate's history. As a body, the Senate is rapidly closing in on qualifying for Medicare: The average age of the 100-member chamber in January 2005, the beginning of the 109th Congress, was 60.4 years old. The House's average age is 55, the oldest since at least 1949.The national median age in 2004 was 36.2. Of the 29 senators seeking re-election this year, two are in their 80s; seven are in their 70s; seven are in their 60s; 10 are in their 50s and three are in their 40s. Senate rules, which give powerful committee posts to the most senior members, tempt many to stay. Some say the Senate will always be a place where gray hair rules. As Senate historian Don Ritchie has pointed out, the word Senate derives from senex, Latin for old. Or as Byrd himself suggested in a recent speech on the Senate floor, ‘Presidents come and go. Senators may stay on and on.’” (Ref. 3)

     Is that what the framers of the Constitution intended? Is that what is best for the United States? I don’t think so. The time has come for congressional term limits. How about a limit of two 6-year terms for Senators and three 4-year terms for Representatives? This would limit congressmen to 12 years in office. As part of the move to impose term limits, I would also opt to change the length of a term of office in the House from 2 to 4 years. Representatives today have to spend too much time and money to run for re-election every two years. With the present two year term, it seems that one election campaign begins as soon as the previous one ends.
  1. ‘Drake’s Folly’ Becomes Washington’s Folly, Jim Toedtman, AARP Bulletin, Page 3, October 2008.
  2. Thomas Jefferson, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian F. Boyd, et. al., (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1950-), 1:411.
  3. Congress is getting grayer but not ready to retire, Kathy Kiely, USA Today, June 8, 2008.

  16 October 2008 {Article 52; Govt_13}    
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