There have traditionally not been any term limits in the United States Congress, though the issue is one that has been debated for decades. Congressional term limits are usually understood to be legal restrictions on the duration or total length of time a person can serve as an elected representative or senator. Officials are usually appointed for a set period of time, but they can in most cases run for reelection continually, meaning that, if they keep winning, they could effectively hold onto the seat for life. The effect is that many long-standing politicians have essentially made being either a representative or a senator their entire careers, which some people argue was not the intent of the founders who designed the system. Many debates and court cases have ensued, but as a general rule term limits have not been imposed in Congress.
All U.S. Representatives and Senators are elected for fixed terms, but the end date doesn’t necessarily mean the official is out of a job — it simply means that there needs to be another election. Each member of the House of Representatives is initially elected to serve a two-year term, while senators are typically elected for six years. The term limits debate normally focuses on how many times a person can be reelected, either consecutively or in sum. Many members of Congress have served multiple terms; the late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia was elected the first time in 1958 and served until 2010, for instance, and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy served from 1962 to his death in 2009.
Debating the Issue
The idea of term limits, in Congress and in politics generally, is one that has been debated in most countries for centuries. The discussion actually got its start in ancient times, when both Greeks and Romans imposed term limits on certain offices. America’s Founding Fathers also heard arguments on both sides of the issue when they were framing the initial government. Scholars generally believe that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson wanted to design government leadership positions to temporary by design, but James Madison and Alexander Hamilton opposed.
At one point there were no limits on the terms of any U.S. politicians, including the president. This changed in 1951 when Congress passed the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, effectively limiting any president to two four-year terms. No limits were placed on members of Congress, though.
This is not to say that many groups haven’t tried. In the elections of 1994, for instance, part of the Republican platform was to pass legislation setting term limits in Congress. After winning the majority they brought a constitutional amendment to the House floor that would have limited members of the Senate to two six-year terms and members of the House to six two-year terms. Because the Republicans held 230 seats in the House, they were able to get a simple majority. However, Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority, or 290 votes, and the votes to restrict term limits fell short of that number.
In May of 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against term limits in Congress in the case of U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton. By a 5-4 vote, the justices found that states could not lawfully impose term limits on representatives or senators. The matter did not resurface in Congress, though some members made individual pledges to limit their own terms. Some stood by their word and did not run for reelection when their time was up; others changed their minds and continued pursuing politics as a career path.
Whether there will ever be term limits in Congress is largely a matter for the public to decide. There have been times when this issue is a very popular and hotly contested one, and other times when top voices seem mostly quiet on the topic. In many ways the entire congressional structure is built around an understanding of rank and seniority, and this would necessarily have to change if term limits were in place. Some say making this change would be good for the nation, while others argue that it’s best to leave things how they are rather than risk disrupting the entire system.