With United States Politics being so divisive today, it often feels like finding parallels between the two parties is a near-impossible task. Nonetheless, a unifying issue bridges the gap: the desire for congressional term reform. Recent polls indicate that minority groups and adults under the age of 50 feel a sense of distrust and frustration with the lack of representation in Congress, implicating a bipartisan view of federal term limits as an increasingly sensible solution.
Credits: Pew Research Center
In 2022, 72% of Americans deemed their view of Congress unfavorable. This continues a trend from a poll done in 2018, where about 76% of Americans stated their dissatisfaction with the ability of congresspeople to address the concerns of citizens in their district. The outlier demographic—those who favored Congress and felt their elected officials cared about them—were 48% of adults 65 and older. The percentage of satisfaction declines as the age bracket decreases, showing that older constituents feel they are being accurately represented in Congress.
This is undoubtedly the case because a majority of our legislators fall within the baby boomer generation. Of the 435 members of the House, 215 were born before 1964, and 21 were born before 1945. 74 of the 97 members of the Senate were also born before 1964. These legislators have contributed to an upward trend in the median age of voting members of Congress, resulting in a continual aging of the overall Congress.
From 1964 to 2022, reelection rates of congressional incumbents have not gone under 85%. In 2020, 95% of campaigning House incumbents won their reelection campaigns. Reelection rates in the Senate have been subject to greater fluctuations, often influenced by significant shifts in the national mood. For instance, during the 1980s, the Reagan Revolution led to a relatively low Senate reelection rate of only 55%. These aging incumbents have made it extremely difficult for freshmen to be elected because of their familiarity and excessive campaign efforts.
2023 Lacks Public Consensus, Making Turnover Difficult
Due to the level of division in United States politics, a substantial portion of constituents are segregated into underrepresented demographics. A majority of minority groups and adults under 50 feel as though their vote does not matter, a fact evident in the decrease in voter turnout numbers. In 2022, adults under 50 made up 65% of nonvoters, and black non-Hispanics made up 15% of nonvoters. These groups feel unheard, uncared for, and inaccurately represented, with 53% of nonvoters stating that their vote “makes no difference in who gets elected and things will go as they did before.” This speaks to the severity of a uniform, primarily white, senior group legislating and (mis)representing an extremely diverse nation. Additionally, congressional approval ratings and voter turnout are continuously behind those of other nations, setting America apart from the liberal agenda that it preaches.
The current state of Congress has led many to question the need for some kind of federal reform. Some have brought up adding justices to the Supreme Court or increasing House members for states with larger populations to have better representation. While these are great ideas, an increasingly popular concept, term limits, aims to limit the influence of long-term congresspeople and infuse diversity and turnover into the political landscape.
Term limits gained national prominence following U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton (1995), in which the Supreme Court determined that individual states could not enforce term limits on their congressional candidate after an Arkansas amendment attempted to impose term limits on the state legislature. Since then, polls show that federal term limits have been widely agreed upon, with 83% of voters in favor of imposing some kind of restriction. Polling numbers indicate this is a bipartisan issue. According to a 2023 survey, 86% of Republicans, 80% of Democrats, and 84% of independents voiced their support for term limits.
Bipartisan majorities are calling for a four-term limit in the House and two terms for the Senate, yet term limits have yet to make it through Congress successfully. The most recent attempt was in 2023 when some congresspeople proposed an amendment that would limit senators to two terms and representatives to 3 terms. Some congresspeople, such as Rep. Dean Phillips(D-MN), continue to advocate for term limits. He supports a maximum of three Senate and nine House terms, giving legislators “plenty of time to understand the system, build relationships and make an impact.” Despite this ongoing support, however, the absence of congressional action to impose term limits on themselves highlights the seriousness of the issue and the need for action.
Term Limits in Action
According to U.S Term Limits Inc., “term limits have been placed on 15 [state] legislatures [and] eight of the largest cities in America” since Thornton. Of those legislatures, they have chosen from either consecutive limits: politicians are restricted to a predetermined number of terms in one legislative chamber, after which they can campaign for and serve in the other chamber before returning to their original position. The other option is lifetime limits: politicians are restricted to their term limit and may never run for reelection to that position.
Regardless of its nature, a federal term limit would free the congressional candidate pool from the influence of long-standing incumbents. As a result, our political landscape would change by increasing the average 12-year congressional turnover rate. This means a broader range of individuals not necessarily tied to established political careers would be motivated to run for office. Furthermore, this amendment would promote greater civic engagement. With more people aspiring to run for political positions and a larger pool of candidates to choose from, there would be more sense of representation, which encourages citizens to become more involved in the electoral process through voting and discussing politics—essentially forming a more dynamic and participatory democratic system.
This has proven true in New York City, which has adopted a legislative consecutive term limit “so that there is more opportunity for citizen participation in the legislative and executive branches and the airing of a greater diversity of ideas.” Accordingly, the 2023 City Council consists of various members serving either their first or second term, sprinkled with seasoned council people who have served multiple nonconsecutive terms. This council makeup could be considered quite enticing. It could sway more people in favor of term limits, as experienced politicians would still be present in the council to guide newly elected members. However, the experienced politicians would not constitute the majority, effectively leveling the playing field and ensuring a more balanced and diverse distribution of power.
Term Limits Aim to Diversify
Since the arguments in favor of imposing congressional term limits feel evident and apparent, why have so many active members of Congress voiced their disapproval of the proposed bill?
As previously mentioned, some are wary of term limits because they are thought to decrease congressional capacity. It is thought that policy-making requires a deliberateness that only comes with experience. This is due to the misconception that Congress would be made up of inexperienced politicians. If Congress were entirely made up of fresh faces, legislation could be rushed and/or incomplete, and America would suffer as a result, as seen in the 2017 defective tax plan. Additionally, some critics view term limits as de facto age limits for Congress. While proponents of term limits contend that introducing younger politicians into Congress would significantly lower the average age of its members, opponents argue that this approach might not be as effective as expected. This is evident when considering certain Baby Boomers in Congress who entered as freshmen. For instance, in 2020, Senator John Hickenlooper (D-CO) was 70 years old, and Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN) was 62 when they were first elected to Congress.
While these observations raise questions about the practical implications of term limits, it is important to understand that an amendment to term limits does not equate to granting total power to a single demographic. Instead, it would enhance congressional diversity.
Considering the bipartisan support for federal congressional term limits and the absence of meaningful congressional action on this issue, it has become clear that legislative reform is desperately needed. Implementing term limits offers a promising avenue to revitalize our democracy. They would reduce the influence of wealthy and powerful incumbents and, in doing so, return power to the hands of the people.
This article was edited by Anousheh Naqvi and Anthony Vu.