Currently, members of Congress are constitutionally limited in time only to the duration of a term in which they hold office. House members are limited to two years per term while Senators are limited to six. The number of terms that members may serve is in no way limited. Considering the passage of the 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution which limits the Presidency, our highest office, to two four-year terms and a maximum of 10 years in office an amendment to limit the maximum terms for Congress would seem to have been a logical progression that would have closely followed. However, Congress has considerably more influence than the President on such matters since each member can present his/her case locally to persuade public opinion. That the President has been limited, but Congress has not chosen to limit itself is by no means a surprise.
Due to inherent distrust in government by the American people, term limits have historically been a part of American political culture since our inception despite the fact that it has not been a requirement by law. This tradition, started by President George Washington, largely persisted in the Presidency and Congress until the 20th century when Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for and was elected to four consecutive presidential terms under the perception that a change in Commander in Chief would be too disruptive immediately before and during a war. This unprecedented event (by the President) helped create and propel the 22nd Amendment to ratification in 1951. In the early 1990’s, measures to create congressional term limits at the state level, though later ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, developed strong citizen support and has since been a regularly visited legislative consideration that has seen a recent surge of support.
Opponents of term limits argue that such restrictions hinder the democratic process by denying the voice of the electorate with a representative who may be seen fit for a lengthy period of time in office. Opponents also argue that term limits eliminate the level of experience available to a given representative body. By restricting the choice of the American people and creating an artificial ceiling in representative experience for a particular office, the argument is presented that democracy itself is limited through term limits.
I counter that the single most devastating threat to our democratic republic is the establishment of a ruling class through unlimited terms of service. Through the 20th century to today, elected officials have shifted from being representatives of their electorate within the confines of the Constitution to becoming career politicians with a gift, through the experience of tenure, of manipulating interpretations of the Constitution to soften its regulations at the cost of the American people. Confusing the American people of the difference between a representative and a politician has been the most effective tactic in securing the elitist, ruling class which has resulted in close to 100 members of Congress currently holding office having served either consecutively or an aggregate of 25 years or more. In the spirit of maximizing their own political careers, members of Congress have enacted salaries, perks and retirement benefits such that they are now considered federal employees which sets the tone for a certain perception of permanence for an office holder. At this point, the matter seems clear that if a person were to run for Congress with the understanding that a career and retirement are potential perks then the primary concern of that individual would necessarily shift, especially as he/she accrued years in service, from representation purely for the benefit of the People to politicking for ensuring a comfortable retirement through appeasing the masses to maximize votes.
As time goes on and members of Congress learn the political “ropes”, alliances form to strengthen their political clout with little regard to the negative effects. This contributes to partisan divisions in both chambers and encourages members to acquiesce to the whims of those who can leverage power over their careers including senior members and special interests. Herein lays the most rooted cause of the deterioration of constitutionally defined federal limits as unscrupulous legislations are pushed with attractive packaging, but have dire consequences that are often hidden in the buffers of time.
Finally, as if political self preservation and constitutional degradation weren’t damaging enough to the Republic, democracy itself is diminished as rules and political alliances discourage (either financially or politically) the introduction of same-party challenges to incumbents during election cycles. Such seemingly unfair advantages are an inherent evil in the campaign process that I am not willing to propose limiting due to its protection under the First Amendment, but results in the suppression of new ideas and all but guarantees that only an incumbent will be reelected as has been demonstrated through the reelection of over 90 percent of Congress from year to year. Here in particular, I argue that democracy is most threatened when a representative position is all but deemed an entitlement even if the representative is perceived to have done a good job. Here is where I argue that a democracy is ineffective if there is no real choice and that for us to preserve the integrity of the Republic and ensure the benefits of democracy we must maintain fertile grounds for democracy to flourish. The only way to ensure the persistence of our democratic republic is to enact representative term limits to guarantee a fresh rotation of ideas. Our nation will be much healthier by potentially being forced to select from new and maybe unfamiliar choices rather than being deceived that a choice of one is any choice at all.