Policy Analysis No. 221

Real Term Limits: Now More Than Ever

Executive Summary

No part of the Republican Contract with America has generated more opposition within the GOP than term limits. Republican congressional candidates promised a vote on term limits, but now GOP politicians are proving reluctant to agree to relinquish power—which shows the need for term limits irrespective of the partisan composition of Congress.

One of the unconvincing arguments against term limits is that they would enhance the power of staffers and lobbyists, even though congressional aides already write most laws and lobbyists consistently oppose term-limit initiatives. A more serious threat to term limits comes from those who advocate a limit of six terms (12 years) in the House. Most states that have limited the terms of their representatives have approved limits of three terms (6 years) for good reasons. Shorter House limits would create more competitive elections. They would also reestablish a citizen legislature.

To effectively end politics as a lifetime sinecure, thereby making congressional service a leave of absence from a productive, private-sector career, requires that terms be short. A dozen years is a short career, but it is more than long enough for legislators to become more concerned about their relationships with each other—logrolling and the like—than about their relationships with constituents.

The nation’s Founders strongly believed in rotation in office. They left term limits out of the Constitution because they did not foresee that politics would become a career for so many people. Short term limits would remedy that mistake. Nothing is more important today than reversing the pernicious rise of a professional political class.

Read the Full Policy Analysis

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow of the Cato Institute and the author of The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology (Transaction). He served as a special assistant to President Reagan.