The Political Revolution that Wasn’t: Why Term Limits Are Needed Now More Than Ever

September 5, 1996 • Policy Analysis No. 259

Term limits are back, despite virulent opposition from the political establishment. Come November, voters in 15 states will be deciding on initiatives designed to overturn last year’s Supreme Court decision voiding voters’ restrictions on the number of terms served by their representatives.

Some political analysts argued that November 1994 obviated the need for term limits. But the Republican majority in Congress is running scared, and November 1994 is looking a lot like the revolution that wasn’t. The problem is not that no genuine citizen‐​legislators were elected. They were. But Congress remains dominated by multiterm careerists of both parties.

Term limits would make a difference. The argument for term limits can be summed up simply: for years there was greater turnover on the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee and in Britain’s House of Lords than in Congress. That did not change in 1994, when the overall House reelection rate still ran roughly 90 percent.

Unfortunately, last year’s Supreme Court decision can be overturned only by a constitutional amendment. Since Congress is unlikely to voluntarily approve one, advocates of term limits need to convince 34 states to call for a convention to draft an appropriate amendment.

State calls for a convention would encourage Congress to propose an amendment, as happened with the Seventeenth Amendment that provides for the direct election of senators. If such pressure proved unavailing, a convention could be held. There would be no danger of a “runaway convention,” since 38 states would have to ratify any proposed amendment.

About the Author