Cato Policy Analysis No. 141 October 30, 1990

Policy Analysis

Term Limitation:
An Idea Whose Time Has Come

by John H. Fund

John H. Fund is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal. His articles on politics have appeared in Esquire, Reader's Digest, National Review, and Political Report.


Executive Summary

Not since Proposition 13 created a nationwide tidal wave of tax protest has a political idea caught on with such speed. Polls show that over 70 percent of Americans back a limit on terms for elected officials, and by next month voters in states where one of every seven Americans live may have voted some form of term limits into law.

Elected officials from city council members to President Bush are scrambling to get to the front of the term-limit parade. As Mike Kelley of Colorado's Independence Institute writes, "Term limitation could become in the 1990s what tax limitation was in the 1970s--a popular movement politicians abhor, but one to which they must respond."(1)

The gulf between legislators and the American people has never been greater than on the issue of term limits. A Gallup survey found that 66 percent of U.S. House members oppose limiting the number of congressional terms, while opinion polls show two-to-one support among all demographic groups.(2) (See Table 1.) The idea is overwhelmingly popular with Americans regardless of party, ideology, or income. Blacks favor it even more than whites, women more than men. Martin Plissner, political director for CBS News, says he has "never seen an issue on which there was so little demographic variation."(3)

Term limits were a part of the nation's first governing document, the Articles of Confederation, and were left out of the Constitution largely because they were thought of as "entering too much into detail" for a short document. Nonetheless, self-imposed limits on officeholders were long a part of America's public-service ethic; members of Congress returned to private life after a couple of terms. With the rise of the modern superstate, term limitation, once the accepted American tradition, has been replaced by congressional careerism. That is why the voluntary service limitations of the past must now be made part of the nation's laws.

Table 1
Responses to "Do You Think There Should Be a Limit to the Number of Times a Member of the House of Representatives Can Be Elected to a Two-Year Term?" (percentage)
  Yes No
Total sample 61 21
By party    
     Republican 64 28
     Democrat 60 30
     Independent 58 33
By philosophy/ideology    
     Liberal 58 34
     Moderate 64 30
     Conservative 63 29
By presidential preference    
     Favored Bush 61 32
     Opposed Bush 60 23
By race    
     White 61 31
     Black 61 27
By gender    
     Men 57 35
     Women 63 27

Source: New York Times/CBS survey of 1,515 adults, con- ducted March 30 - April 2, 1990, with a 3 percent margin of error.

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