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Are There Term Limits in the United States Congress?

By Jan Maxwell
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

Initial Terms

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.

Court Rulings

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.

Looking Forward

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.

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Discussion Comments

By anon314600 — On Jan 18, 2013

Why not start a petition? We can get plenty of support especially with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

By anon311695 — On Jan 03, 2013

Congress doesn't work for the American people. Once elected, they work for the bettering of themselves, and the hell with the American people. It should be a limited time they work, so if not they are not approved by the citizens of the US, we could get them out and replace them with others who will do what's best for the people.

There has been no change through the years as the United States has revolved around all these long-term politicians.

By anon285530 — On Aug 16, 2012

In February 2012, the US Senate voted on an amendment. The purpose of this amendment was to propose an amendment to the Constitution that limits the number of terms a member of Congress may serve. The vote was: Yea=24 and Nays= 75 with one not voting. You can check out the roll call on this at the senate website.

By anon172018 — On May 02, 2011

Congressional term limits would almost if not eliminate unhealthy politics. Fresh new blood brings new ideas and methods into the playing field. Negotiate and compromise would have true value in supporting the folks who elected them into office.

Term limits in the Supreme Court would limit left or right ideologies. They would preserve as well as represent the US Constitution.

They represent "we the people" and as Americans, we should not accept anything less. By walking the walk and talking the talk, we can inspire the world.

By oosolo1 — On Apr 10, 2011

There's no sense in complaining about term limits because there's not one lousy thing you can do about it! Do you really think those guys and girls are going to vote themselves out of a job? Nt!

What we should do is have a law passed that would make it a federal offense for a lobbyist to do any kind of business involving the government or to even show up on the hill, with an absolutely certain jail term involved. Then, have another law passed that would put a limit on any contributions made by large corporations or rich people or banks to representatives that were running for office and that would include the president and anyone that is running for that office. I think that would curb a lot of this crap that goes on in Washington.

By anon158830 — On Mar 08, 2011

As a "baby-boomer", when I was in school we were taught there were term limits on congressmen!

The cancer that is killing American Democracy is the money spent on campaigns. How can a person raise 10's of millions and not favor that source's interests? I am sure that this is why Asian factories were allowed to run my industry (printed circuit boards) completely out of America.

England is much smaller than USA, but they do have ceilings on their campaign spending. I am confident that the advertising agencies who earns millions off of campaigns are contributing back to those congressmen to not limit the money that can be spent on them!

By anon147819 — On Jan 30, 2011

Do you really think your so called "vote" makes a difference? Do you people really continue to hold on to the myth that the Politicians are elected by you, the voter? Get real America.

The government is run by the big banks, big corporations and that is all there is to it.

They are the ones who pick and choose who will be the "Peoples representatives". It is a fact, live with it.

By anon137153 — On Dec 26, 2010

I would like to sign up! Where do I go to sign up. --Dale R.

By anon137115 — On Dec 26, 2010

I'm fed up with the current situation in congress and would like to see something done about it.

By anon111499 — On Sep 16, 2010

Without the worries for corruption, are there any other issues about the term limits?

I'm asian, so curious about your nation's political thing. I hope that i can reply asap.

By anon101098 — On Aug 02, 2010

Where is the clarion call in support of the idea of "free market" regarding freedom to choose?

By anon70967 — On Mar 16, 2010

While we sit around and wait on the lack of action of passing a term limits amendment by the people we elected in the first place, let's at least vote everyone of these people out of office and start with a clean house. What do we really have to lose?

If all of you are fed up as much as I am let's start a movement that can be heard all the way to Washington!

By anon69601 — On Mar 09, 2010

Term limits just end up increasing the influence of lobbyists.

1. Congressmen are now looking more towards their next job opportunity and less at what they're doing right now. Usually their best offers are coming from the companies that the lobbyists represent.

2. As much as we like to pretend that government is so simple, anybody can do it with a little common sense, the truth is that it's a series of enormously complex areas that you need a lot of knowledge to truly understand.

If you are continuously throwing new people in there who don't have the knowledge base, they're going to listen to people who appear to - the lobbyists.

By anon67550 — On Feb 25, 2010

term limits would be a way of limiting the influence

the lobbyists have on any particular congressman or

senator. their responsibility is to the american people, not lobbyists. --braid a.

By anon63493 — On Feb 02, 2010

"We already have term limits. they're called elections!" -posted by a congressman no doubt.

90 percent of incumbents get re-elected. Enough said. there's a big problem here.

By anon63233 — On Jan 31, 2010

We already have term limits. they're called elections!

By smsm — On Jan 12, 2010

I agree there should be term limits. That's how I looked up this site. Where is the online petition? And there needs to be a petition for term limits for the supreme court as well. Those appointments can be you scratch my back I'll scratch yours just like the Congress! Nothing should be for life in Washington!

By Rip — On Dec 22, 2009

Term limits would be one of the greatest turning points of this country. "Provided we survive the current realm of complete corruption to initiate it."

Another place we need look, and look hard at is the Supreme Court. We do not need these strongly biased individuals making our very important decisions for a life time.

If not then we should limit only persons to be of age 65 and over after passing an IQ test and medical tests regarding mental illness related to age, to qualify for appointment. They should be of sound physical health. This would limit them to a more reasonable term. Life is getting short after 65. I know from experience.

By anon43581 — On Aug 30, 2009

With the kind of corruption we are seeing today in our government this would be wonderful. It would stop special interest groups from helping to get things like Cap and Tax and this so called health reform bill through.

By darlingdork — On Feb 18, 2009

What would be the impact of limiting the amount of years a person could serve in Congress? What would be the pros and cons?

By lplath — On Nov 03, 2008

where do i see the online petition?

By anon17481 — On Aug 30, 2008

U.S. Term Limits has just launched an on-line petition for Congressional term limits. The goal is to compile a list of Americans who support this reform that is so enormous it cannot be ignored.

By lflinch — On Jul 12, 2008

Where can I find list of the Congressman that voted against a "Term Limits" Constitutional Amendment? Larry Flinchpaugh

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