The time for term limits is now!
Bill Natbony is the Deputy CEO and General Counsel of Edgestream Partners, L.P., a registered investment adviser. He previously was Professor of Law at New York Law School and a Senior Partner at Katten Muchin Rosenman, LLP. Bill specializes in business law, investment management and taxation and is the author of The Lonely Realist, a blog directed at bridging the partisan gap by raising questions and making pointed observations about law, politics, economics, international relations and markets.
Although voters in the 1990s supported legislation that successfully imposed term limits on state and local officeholders, the movement stalled in 1995 when the Supreme Court ruled that imposing federal limits requires a Constitutional amendment (U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton). The result has been Congressional term limit stagnation, with more than 90 percent of House incumbents re-elected every two years and the reelection rate among Senators standing at 78 percent. Change is overdue.
Although the substantial majority of America’s voters believe the absence of federal term limits is damaging to the country, they understand the attraction of a Congressional career that includes a potential lifetime sinecure. In addition to attaining power, stature and influence, Congressional membership comes with lavish benefits: a high salary; unparalleled business connections; limited working days (up to 239 days off/year); spectacular working conditions; a huge expense account (ranging from $1.15 to $3.3 million/year); periodic all-expenses-paid fact-finding trips; a sizable staff (that could include family and friends); exceptional medical, dental and retirement benefits, weakened insider trading rules; taxpayer-funded legal expenses; the ability to moonlight at other jobs; free flights back-and-forth to the member's home state; a family death gratuity; and free parking. No wonder that those elected to Congress make every effort to hold onto their jobs. No wonder special interests spend lavishly to ensure the re-election of incumbents who protect and enhance those interests.
The fact that the public understands the consequences of incumbency explains why public confidence in Congress is at an all-time low. Both Republicans and Democrats agree that Congress is broken… a view so widely held that, if ever there was an issue that should command bipartisan support, it's Congressional term limits. Although Congress made a valiant [sic] effort in 1995 to begin the Constitutional amendment process described in the Republican Party's "Contract with America," the House could not muster the necessary two-thirds majority to move the process forward. Opposition came from both political parties, the conservative Cato Institute reporting that, "No part of the Republican Contract with America has generated more opposition within the GOP than term limits." H.J.Res. 2 attracted only a bare majority (227-204), and three subsequent term limit amendment bills failed to garner even that. But, then, it's not surprising that self-interested members of Congress continue to make every effort to feather their nests.
In making a case for term limits, the Heritage Foundation argued in 1994 that "substantial public support suggests widespread distaste for careerism in politics, as well as a conviction that continual infusion of fresh blood into the federal legislature will be good for both the Congress and the country. Support for term limits extends to significant majorities of diverse demographic groups: polls show that majorities of men, women, blacks, whites, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents all favor term limits, typically by 60 percent or better."
The Heritage Foundation nevertheless badly missed the mark by concluding that "term limits are here to stay as an important issue on the American political landscape." The cold reality is that members of Congress have no interest in limiting their terms. Membership in Congress is their occupation, and they intend to maximize their chances of continuing in their jobs. That's a bipartisan goal, as common among Republican members of Congress as it is among Democrats. Although Senator Ted Cruz in 2017, 2019, 2021 and 2023 introduced a Constitutional amendment that would limit U.S. Senators to two six-year terms and House members to three two-year terms, the proposal has received no serious consideration from either political party and no effort has been made by Senator Cruz or other elected officials to garner public support. Therefore, unless the term limits movement starts with the states and mobilizes its way to the federal level, it appears doomed to gather dust on Congressional bookshelves.
Arguments in favor of Constitutional change begin with the fact that term limits have proven themselves at state and local levels, bringing new perspectives and encouraging those with fresh ideas to run for office. Federal term limits would diminish the incentives for wasteful election-related spending that have proliferated in the careerist Congress (especially following the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision validating the solicitation and receipt of unlimited campaign contributions). Arguments against term limits include that term limits would take voting power away from voters (they would be "undemocratic"), decrease the already-small pool of professional federal legislators, limit incentives for gaining policy expertise, "term out" influential lawmakers, increase (rather than decrease) lobbyists' influence by creating a for-hire revolving door, and place federal legislation in the hands of lobbyists, bureaucrats, and unelected Beltway insiders. The reality is that this already is the case. Members of Congress have been so busy electioneering that they have left the difficult drafting and negotiation tasks to their staffs, all-too-often relying on templates provided by their partisan financial supporters, a practice that would change with term limits and the reduced need for re-electioneering with a potentially greater emphasis on ideas, execution and legacy.
The time for bipartisan change is now.