Term Limits and Popular Government

Rasmussen Reports has a new poll indicating 71 percent of the public want term limits for members of Congress. This finding is nothing new. Strong majorities have supported congressional term limits for the past two decades. What about before that? I decided to take a look at the Gallup polling going back more than six decades. Here’s what I found.

The first polling on the topic in 1947 showed 46 percent supporting limits for the House (48 percent opposed) and 52 percent favoring them for the Senate. Eight years later Gallup found support had fallen to 38 percent for senatorial limits. In 1964-5, from 48 to 50 percent favored term limits for members of both chambers. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw weak results for term limits. In 1969, 43 percent favored House limits; two years later a survey showed support for Senate limits had fallen to 39 percent.

And then everything changed.

Surveys in 1977 and 1981 showed about 60 percent support for limits on the terms of members in both houses. Later in the 1980s, support went up toward 65 percent or so. By 1994, Gallup found its first 70 percent response in favor of congressional term limits. A year later, the number was 67 percent. Thereafter, Gallup apparently did not poll on the topic, perhaps because the Supreme Court took term limits off the political agenda.

Still, in 2003, an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey found 67 percent of the public thought term limits were a good idea. A year later a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll found 78 percent supported the idea. Against this background, the Rasmussen poll makes perfect sense.

People sometimes argue that popular changes to the Constitution or the rules of the political game can reflect momentary passions that pass, leaving only unwise policies. This concern is not without merit. However, if the public indicates a strong and growing desire for change over more than three decades, shouldn’t a republican government follow that settled and presumably considered desire? I mean, republican government is government by the people, right?