To understand the need for term limits for the United States Congress, it is important to know the history of term limits in the United States.
Before the Revolutionary War, term limits existed in some capacity in some colonies. When the United States won its independence from Great Britain, a new government was formed under the Articles of Confederation. The Articles government feared tyranny, having rebelled against what they considered a tyrannical government. Their policies under the Articles reflected this mentality. Unlike our current government under the Constitution, the central government was much weaker, with individual states having more power and self-governance. Another difference between the two governments was congressional term limits. Article V of the Articles states, “No person shall be capable of being a delegate for more than three years in any term of six years.”
When the Articles came to be replaced with the current United States Constitution, congressional term limits were ultimately rejected. The Founding Fathers’ logic was that more experience would benefit congressmen’s abilities to diligently and effectively do their jobs, while inexperienced congressmen, they saw to be more naive. Therefore, term limits were excluded from the Constitution.
The exclusion of term limits was shared by all three branches of the Federal government since Supreme Court Justices could serve for life. The President also had no term limits, but one of the precedents set by George Washington was for Presidents to serve only two terms. The only president to break this convention was Franklin D. Roosevelt who was elected to four terms. Unlimited terms for presidents then ended in 1951 with the ratification of the 22nd Amendment which limited the number of terms a President can serve to two.
This event shows that term limits can be constitutional since they have been applied to one branch of the government. Additionally, congressional term limits could therefore help balance the power between the Executive and Legislative branches of government.
Going back at least as far as the mid 1970’s multiple proposals have been made in Congress for congressional term limits, yet in most cases the legislation is sent to one of several committees and nothing ends up happening.Between January 1981 and February 1992, 69 proposals for Congressional term limits were introduced to Congress. Since then, several dozen more proposals have been made in Congress.
One of the most notable attempts in the past several decades was in 1995 when 23 states passed laws limiting the number of their federal legislative members of Congress. Politicians responded by challenging the laws which resulted in the Supreme Court case U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton. The court ruled that state laws cannot limit federal congressional terms, and that only the Constitution can. So while the case prevented term limits from being implemented then, it established that the definite course of action is to pursue the ratification of a constitutional amendment.
Multiple presidents, many recent have expressed their views on term limits and if they support them. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both supported term limits.President Obama expressed support in congressional term limits both during and after his presidency. Additionally, President Trump supported term limits. Joe Biden opposes term limits, including during his time in Congress when he voted against a bill supporting term limits in 1996.
One of the main organizations attempting to implement term limits is United States Term Limits, the organization involved in U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton. Their current goal is to get the 34 states required by the Constitution to call for a convention to amend the Constitution. 14 states have already passed resolutions for a convention, and 38 will be needed to ratify the amendment. There still seems to be a great deal of work which needs to be done for congressional term limits to become a reality.