Under the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the United States, term limits were imposed for representatives. However, in 1787, when the new U.S. Constitution was drafted and debated in Philadelphia, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention decided against any term limit provisions in the Constitution. This thought reversal has provided fodder for a continuous debate ever since.
Term limits are restrictions bound by law that limit an elected official to a specific number of terms for a particular office. Term limits appear at both the federal and state levels. Although absent from the Constitution during the early part of the nation’s history, President George Washington set the precedent for an unenforced presidential term limit of two terms. Every president since George Washington through Herbert Hoover recognized the significance of Washington’s actions and limited their time in office to two terms. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first and only president to be elected to the presidency four times. His actions set forth a movement to legally restrict the president to two terms. In 1951, the United States passed the Twenty-second Amendment, which made it impossible for a president to serve more than two terms. Since its ratification, opponents of the measure, including several presidents, have questioned the constitutionality of the amendment and have voiced their objections to it.
Several state constitutions include provisions for term limits for state governors and state legislators as well. Beginning in the 1990s, in response to a poor economy and an increasing cynicism toward an unresponsive government, states across the nation became witness to a democratic movement that sought to hold government accountable to the people. Several states introduced referendums and initiatives seeking to limit their elected officials to specific term limits.
Regardless of whether term limits are imposed at the state or federal level, the contentious issue has its share of proponents and opponents. Although term limits have become an integral part of America’s political system, opponents stand behind several arguments in seeking its repeal. First, opponents assert that term limits are undemocratic: The very nature of limiting the right of voters to exercise their vote in the manner they choose and selecting the representative of their choice is undemocratic. If constituents prefer to reelect their representative, regardless of how many times the individual has served, democracy provides that right. If term limits are used to ensure that only the most experienced and upstanding hold office, the voters can perform the same task, by voting them out of office, without the need of restrictions. Second, opponents contend that term limits dilute the pool of experienced politicians: By imposing term limits, the pool of candidates is effectively limited to those with little to no elective office experience. As in any job, those with experience and seniority are better able to start exercising their duties on day one without the restrictions of a learning curve. Furthermore, those who perform well, have experience, and are not restricted by term limits can provide their constituents with greater benefits than their first year colleagues. Third, opponents believe that if term limits are imposed to increase accountability, it actually fosters the opposite: Knowing that an elected official is coming to the end of the term, no incentive exists for them to remain accountable or responsive to the voters, instead they may forsake the voters’ interest on behalf of others.
Those who support term limits often argue that term limits provide the opportunity for new people who have fresh ideas and are more innovative to serve in government. Further, term limits eliminate the need for politicians to consider political concerns when making decisions. Since they will not be up for reelection, term limited officials can freely exercise their vote and duties without fear of political reprisal. In addition, supporters contend that term limits reduce the power of incumbency because elected officials are no longer able to use the benefits of their office to ensure their own victory at the expense of a candidate who is less well known or is a financial underdog.
- Doron, Gideon, and Michael Harris. Term Limits. New York: Lexington Books, 2001.
- Kousser,Thad. Term Limits and the Dismantling of State Legislative Professionalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
- Lijphardt, Arend. Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-six Countries. New Haven:Yale University Press, 1999.
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