17 Pros and Cons of Term Limits for Congress

In the United States, presidential term limits were enacted in 1951. The concept was passed by Congress in 1947, then ratified by the states on February 27, 1951. It would become the 22nd Amendment to the constitution, limiting a president to two terms in office.

In total, a president is permitted to serve for 10 years, but only if they came into the office of the presidency by order of succession outside of an actual election. Otherwise, they are restricted to a total of 8 years in office.

The amendment for presidential term limits came about because of the extended term of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is the only president to serve more than two terms in the office. He was elected as the 32nd President of the United States in 1933 and would win a total of 4 presidential elections.

Now some believe it is time for elected congressional representatives to have term limits as well. Here are the pros and cons of term limits for Congress in the U.S. to consider.

List of the Pros for Congressional Term Limits

1. It could encourage politicians to seek positive, radical change.

Politicians with nothing left to lose have the opportunity to leave themselves with a lasting legacy because of term limits. They could pursue something in U.S. politics, such as gun control, that is traditionally unpopular. Because they have nothing left to lose, there are no more criticisms or lobbying interests to sway their political opinion. In this scenario, term limits could become a power motivator for change.

2. It could stop money from being a corruptive influence in office.

Politicians with term limits have less time to make an impact on legislation. That means there are fewer opportunities for special interests to lobby through specific politicians for outcomes that they find to be favorable. Although this would likely cause a bigger overall push for rapid action by lobbyists, newly elected officials tend to be more skeptical of purchased political influence when compared to incumbents.

3. It could change the conversations we have about governing.

By kicking out incumbents after they’ve reached a term limit, communities around the country would have the opportunity to offer fresh perspectives about the governing process. When politicians serve on the same committees and work together frequently, it creates a comfort level that can leave them blind to what the voices of the voters are actually saying. Replacing politicians every so often can reduce this blindness, helping the government actually serve the people.


4. It could limit the influence of lobbyists in Washington.

Many forms of lobbying are designed to keep specific politicians in positions of power. This is done because the lobbying groups want someone in leadership that will represent their interests at the legislative table. There will likely be lobbyist influence in Washington all the time, but with new faces coming in every few years, the establishment issues being experienced currently would begin to be less disruptive than they currently are. That could allow for more positive legislation to be introduced, if not passed, in each session.

5. It could limit the amount of money that affects politics today.

Fundraising is a top priority for most politicians. Re-election campaigns are already starting to raise money for the next election cycle before the current one begins in many circumstances. It took Donald Trump fewer than 3 months to establish a fundraising PAC for his anticipated 2020 election campaign. Many Republicans and Democrats have taken similar actions. There will always be money in politics, but with term limits in place, it could be shifted toward something better than another re-election.

6. It could encourage higher levels of voter turnout.

In many areas of the United States, voter turnout levels struggle to reach 50%. In an off-cycle election, the participation rate in some communities drops below 30%. That means a minority of voters usually decides the direction the nation will take for the next 2 or 4 years. With term limits in place, more candidates would be able to present their positions to the voting public. It wouldn’t be the same as having multiple political parties, but it would provide some diversity within the GOP and Democratic party, which could lead toward more centrism and compromise in the legislative efforts of Congress.

7. It could bring new ideas to light in Washington.

If you look at the history of legislation in Washington, most of it is just recycled ideas from previous years. Even major legislation items, such as the Affordable Care Act, is a reboot from Republican efforts to nationalize healthcare in 1989. To get new ideas in Congress, new people need to be sent there to make that happen. It would prevent the isolation that elected officials currently enjoy more often because more people would have a chance to get their opinions heard in a meaningful way.

8. It could change the perspective of what a politician should be.

In the United States, being a politician in Washington is seen more as a career option than a temporary assignment. Elected officials do what they need to do to continue that career. Term limits would change the perspective. Serving in the House or the Senate would no longer be a full career, like it was for Robert Byrd and John Dingell, Jr., who both served for more than 50 years.

9. It could limit the impacts of extremism within the government.

Term limits would make the impacts of any politician be limited by nature. Once passed as an amendment to the constitution, it would require another amendment to reverse the term limits. Only once in the history of the United States has an amendment been repealed. That was the 18th amendment, which prohibited the manufacturing or sale of alcohol within the country. It was repealed by the actions of the 21st amendment.

List of the Cons for Congressional Term Limits

1. It would limit the effectiveness of those who are elected to serve.

Requiring more people to become elected officials because of term limits would change the learning curve in how Washington works. Every 2-year cycle would have 50% of the Congressional term be dedicated to teaching the newly elected representatives the specific details in how governing is accomplished. We’re already concerned in the United States about political gridlock and polarity, as evidenced by the sub-20% approval rating that Congress receives. Term limits could potentially increase gridlock.

Imagine telling doctors that they had to stop working after 12 years. Or telling IT specialists that they’d need to go find another career. It would change how the industry performs in mostly negative ways. The same would likely be true in Congress.

2. It would force good people out of office.

There is a reason why some elected officials serve 30-50 years in Congress. They are good at what they do. Although term limits would eliminate the possibility of an ineffective incumbent from being constantly re-elected, it would also remove the possibility of an extremely effective politician from being able to keep their job. Term limits might be useful in specific situations, but there must be some responsibility placed at the feet of the individual voters as well.

3. It would change how relationships are formed.

Term limits would help to remove some of the corruption threats that seem to constantly exist in Washington. At the same time, term limits would also change how people form relationships with other representatives. Politics isn’t just about legislation. It involves building relationships, forming a network of contacts, and being directly involved with their district. All of those benefits would go away when an elected official is forced from office.

4. It would change the priorities of the politicians affected.

Term limits put a specific deadline on the time that an individual can serve in Congress. When an elected official knows they are on their last term, there is less overall accountability for their actions. They realize that there is no way for them to be re-elected, so that gives them more freedom to pursue legislation that may be considered extreme or self-serving. Politicians on a final term, without the hope of a re-election, literally have nothing to lose.

5. It would enhance the influence of money in Washington.

Politicians that are facing a term limit may be more swayed by lobbying efforts instead of being able to ignore them. That is because the elected official would need to seek an alternative form of employment after their term of service ended. Lobbying groups or special interests could offer term-limited politicians an employment opportunity, which means job security, in exchange for specific actions that could be taken while still in office.

6. It would shift the emphasis in politics.

Term limits are a conversation on a national level that is often started by individuals who are dissatisfied with the performance of politicians that they do not elect. A person may not agree with Mitch McConnell, but his district elects him each year. That is their local preference, just as it may be another district’s local preference to elect someone who is outspoken and progressive, such as Bernie Sanders. Term limits shifts the focus of American politics away from local, grassroots components to a national conversation about who should or should not serve.

7. It would not restrain the actual power of the government.

Term limits would help to restrain the powers wielded by individuals elected to Congress. It would not, however, restrain the overall powers of the government itself. It would require each district to take on the challenge of making changes, which is time consuming, expensive, and slow. Federally elected officials control almost two-thirds of the power that is granted in the U.S. to all branches of government, local on up. Reforms through the actual elections would put more restraints on the government, which is the reason why term limits are often proposed in the first place.

8. It has zero political momentum.

In the United States, 74% of likely voters, in any given election cycle, support the idea of term limits for Congress. It is an idea that has not been ignored by elected officials either. According to the Brookings Institute, some form of term-limit legislations has been introduced in almost every Congressional session since 1943. It is a concept that gets a lot of lip service, but no real action, because the concept of using term limits is a political weapon to be wielded during an election cycle, much like other red meat issues, such as abortion, universal healthcare, or religious liberty.

The pros and cons for congressional term limits would solve some of the problems that we see in Washington. Like any other change to a governing system, however, there would likely be unexpected negative consequences which would develop as well. Having new perspectives is important to the governing process, but we must not discount the experience a long-term elected official may have as well. It may be emotionally satisfying to kick bad politicians out of office, but it won’t fix everything.
It may not even fix anything.