The Case Against Congressional Term Limits

By H. Harrison Coleman ’22

The US Capitol Building (Photo Credit: NPS)
The US Capitol Building (Photo Credit: NPS)

I remember the anticipation of the 2016 election and being enamored with now-President Donald Trump’s words. “Drain the Swamp,” said Trump. In his presidential campaign, he proposed several governmental ethics reforms, which included imposing term limits on Congress. Since that year, I have grown and changed radically in my political beliefs, and as I have come to oppose Donald Trump and his peculiar brand of conservatism, I have also come to realize that congressional term limits would be a disastrous idea.


The idea of limiting the number of terms in office an elected lawmaker might be able to serve is a very old one. In fact, it predates the United States itself. For instance, in the English Connecticut colony, governors only could only serve one term before they were made to step down. Right after the American Revolution, the Articles of Confederation, which served as the US’s supreme document before the Constitution was written, mandated delegates to Congress be limited in the number of terms they could serve. This idea was thrown out with the Articles, when the Constitution was written as a replacement in 1789.


The very idea of limiting the amount of times we, the electorate, could vote for a candidate is inherently undemocratic. Our government, a representative democratic republic, is based on the idea that we have the ability to choose who represents us in Congress—both in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Limiting our choices because of an arbitrary number of years a Congressperson might have served impedes the people’s ability to elect the person they feel most represents them. Additionally, it requires that any Congressperson, no matter how talented they are at writing legislation and getting it passed, will get thrown out of office when the limit is reached. But don't just take my word for it: take fourth President James Madison’s word, who explained why the Constitution did not include the Congressional term limits its predecessor did in Federalist Paper No. 53: “A few of the members of Congress will possess superior talents; will by frequent re-elections, become members of long standing; will be thoroughly masters of the public business, and perhaps not unwilling to avail themselves of those advantage(s).”.


Thankfully, we don’t have to base our modern political questions on the words of long-dead men, because this argument has had examples to show why term limits are a bad idea. Fifteen states do limit their state legislatures, and the results from each are undeniable. Mandating term limits is a great thing to do—if your goal is to empower lobbyists and special interest groups. This is because limiting the amount of time a representative is allowed to serve in the legislature shifts power to those who will be there for the long haul, such as the corporate spokespeople who legally bribe our representatives. Lobbyists and other shady backroom savants prey more often—and effectively—on newer, less established representatives. More established, connected lawmakers are more resistant to the allure of those who would twist legislation to fit corporate, profit-hungry goals, because more experienced legislators don't need lobbyists to fill gaps in experience.


Still, there is the most damning rejection of congressional term limits: they kneecap the legislative branch, and empower the executive. Any president who serves one four-year term overlooks the entirety of the House being elected or re-elected twice and 2/3rds of the Senate being elected or re-elected. A president who serves two terms sees twice as much, with four House elections, and sees all senators go through an election—some more than once.


The American system of government is already skewed in favor of the executive branch, especially compared to systems like Britain’s, where the executive (in their case, the Prime Minister) is beholden entirely to the legislative branch, and is one vote of No Confidence away from being kicked out and replaced, or to call for new elections entirely. This differs from impeachment in the United State’s system, because the highly unrepresentative and antiquated House of Lords (the British Senate) is mostly powerless, and true power to check the executive lies with the people’s direct representatives. Any motion to limit Congress’s power even further would only hand more power, in the form of soft influence, to the presidency.


Congressional term limits are an antiquated, bad idea that even the Founding Fathers knew to reject. The very idea of which is antidemocratic and a proven failure. Term limits invite only lobbyists and the executive branch to take power from the people’s direct representatives, an idea antithetical to the very system of government we have.