Term Limits Unlimited

The movement to limit politicians' terms in office has continued to grow with support from libertarian thinkers and financiers.



In "Exit Interviews" (October 2000), reason's Michael W. Lynch and Katherine Mangu-Ward spoke with members of Congress who were voluntarily on their way out the door, having signed a pledge to limit themselves to three terms when they came to power as part of the Republican wave of 1994.

As Lynch and Mangu-Ward wrote, "the term-limits movement has been a huge success. Eighteen states have enacted term limits on their legislators; tellingly, all but two of the laws came about via ballot initiatives." But 23 states that put term limits on their federal representatives found themselves out of luck when "a 1995 Supreme Court decision declared such laws unconstitutional," leaving congressional term limits the only aspect of the Republican Party's Contract with America that failed to pass the House.

The movement has continued to grow with support from libertarian thinkers and financiers. According to Philip Blumel, president of U.S. Term Limits (USTL), "Term limits don't guarantee positive change. They make it possible. Under a seniority system where incumbents statistically cannot lose, change is not really possible."

Nearly two decades after the legislative route to federal term limits was blocked by the Supreme Court, USTL is hoping that Congress will pass a constitutional amendment requiring them. It's a propitious time, with a July Wall Street Journal/NBC poll finding a record-high 83 percent disapproval of Congress. In 2012, 97 percent of term limits proposals on ballots across the nation passed. In 2013, a Gallup poll found 75 percent of Americans supporting the idea. A statewide constitutional amendment for term limits in Illinois, spearheaded by GOP gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner, earned over half a million signatures to get on the November 2014 ballot. In late August, the state Supreme Court let stand a lower court decision knocking the popular amendment off the ballot on procedural grounds, thus killing it for this year.

The 22nd Amendment was a term limits amendment on the president-but that didn't require his approval. By contrast, Congress will have to pass the amendment limiting itself before the states can. USTL is seeking pledges from representatives to support term limits. As of early August, 30 sitting members of Congress (12 in the Senate, 18 in the House) are co-sponsoring a term limits amendment, and 180 current candidates for Congress have signed USTL's pledge.