Explainer: Should Congress Have Term Limits? (Part 1)

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A majority of Americans support putting term limits on Congress, and they may get their wish if Mitt Romney becomes president. But is it a good idea? The first in a three-part series imagines what the House would look like with term limits, and introduces the politicians hoping to make it a reality.

The big applause line

These days, it seems nobody likes Congress. Its approval rating has sunk to 10 percent. And the (usual) Republican front-runner has noticed.

So Mitt Romney offers an idea for dealing with an incredibly unpopular, mostly unproductive body of legislators. And while it's not exactly a new one, it's still a big applause line on the campaign trail—Americans have always been suspicious of politicians, and interested in checking their influence.

Romney thinks term limits are the answer.

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if we had people go to Washington for some period of time and then go home and get a real job in the real economy?" Romney asked at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire. Enthusiastic cheers answered. "That would be a wonderful thing," Romney continues, "I would love to see term limits."

So would most Americans, according to polls. The idea was popular among the Founding Fathers, and remains so today. Yet, the United States didn't have term limits for the president until after Franklin Roosevelt's third term. And we've never had term limits for our federal legislators.

There's at least one presidential candidate and a few sitting politicians trying to change that.

Legislation on the table

One of them is Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), who currently has the most traction of any term limit advocate in Washington—which still isn't saying much.

Last year, DeMint introduced a "Term Limits for All" constitutional amendment that would limit Representatives to three terms and Senators to two—that's a total of six years for the former, 12 years for the latter.

"If we're ever going to permanently change Washington, we must change the process that encourages career politicians to amass personal power instead of making the hard decisions for the nation," DeMint said at the time. "We need true citizen legislators who spend their time defending the Constitution, not currying favor with lobbyists."

DeMint's legislation didn't get far, never coming out of committee for a proper vote. Most recently, DeMint attached an amendment to the STOCK Act, the focus of which is to bar insider trading by members of Congress. DeMint's amendment in that instance did nothing more than say the Senate should pass a joint resolution proposing the constitutional amendment he seeks.

Last week, the Senate voted 75-24 to strike DeMint's amendment from the bill.

What a Congress with term limits looks like

Let's imagine for a minute that we had the sort of term limits for representatives proposed by Jim DeMint. Of the 435 House legislators, how many would have to hit the road this fall?

Hover over the image for more information.

About two-thirds of House seats would have to be cleared through mandatory rotation. Many of each party's best-known (and most controversial) faces would be out: Nancy Pelosi, Charlie Rangel, Ron Paul...these are some household names.

Indeed, we've gotten plenty of time to know them. The average length of time that a current member of Congress has served is just over 10 years, and well over the limits proposed by DeMint. Some representatives have been in office for more than 40 or 50 years.

One also notices that Democrats would be disproportionately affected if term limits were to go into effect this year: they'd lose more members of a smaller caucus, and long-term prospects would appear dim—there are 74 Republican freshmen to the Democrats' nine.

It all goes back to '94...

It's somewhat poetic that, even now, Democrats would bear the brunt of political costs associated with term limits: the modern interest in term limits began when Republicans in the early 1990s sought a way to reclaim the House of Representatives, which had been controlled by Democrats since 1952.

"It had seemed to Republicans that the Democrats’ hold on the House was unshakable, so term limits were seen as a way to make it more possible for Republicans to take over the House," said Dr. Stanley Caress, a professor of political science at the University of West Georgia, who's currently writing a book examining the impact of term limits on state legislatures. "The irony is that they did so in ‘94 without term limits."

But proposing term limits was at least a small part of what made the Republican "Revolution of '94" successful. A constitutional amendment imposing term limits was part of the GOP's "Contract With America"—the brainchild of one Newt Gingrich, currently a candidate for president. Once it had taken both the Senate and the House, the party even followed through on their promise to introduce an amendment, though it never secured the two-thirds majorities needed to advance.

And yet, the ball was already rolling at the state level. In 1990, California, Colorado, and Oklahoma used ballot initiatives to pass term limits on state legislators; 18 states followed suit, either through similar ballot initiatives, or the legislatures imposing limits on themselves.

Term limits remain popular in every state that has them. And a Rasmussen Reports poll from last fall found that 71 percent of Americans favor term limits for Congress.

While there aren't any on the books, there's one member of Congress who thinks they're such a good idea, he's voluntarily abiding by the limits he'd set for others—and that means retiring at the end of this year.

When he leaves, there won't be a single person in the House of Representatives who doesn't take money from PACs, businesses, or special interests.

The self-limiter

"I've known that serving my home community in Congress is what I've wanted to do since I was 14 years old," says Todd Platts, a Republican who's represented Pennsylvania's 19th District since 2000. "And to voluntarily walk away from a job that I love, that I'm still passionate about, that I enjoy working hard at, was not an easy decision."

But it is the principled one. Platts has introduced term limits legislation during each of the six sessions of Congress he's served; prior to working in Washington, Platts fought for term limits in Pennsylvania as a state legislator. He's always felt it was a good idea, and that 12 years should be enough for anyone.

"Twelve years is a good time frame because you have a chance to gain expertise and knowledge you can then apply on behalf of your constituents," Platts said. “It's time to step down and allow some new energy and new ideas to take your spot."

Platts takes the ideal of a “citizen legislator” to heart. Although he's been politically active since the age of 14, Platts is the sort of non-career politician envisioned by many of the Founding Fathers—Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Mason, to name a few. They hoped private citizens would feel called to serve their country, pay their dues in Washington, and leave. They wouldn’t make a life—or a livelihood—out of legislating.

The data and the anecdotes show that such politicians are an aberration in this day and age. Todd Platts especially: when the Congressman voluntarily relinquishes his seat at the end of the year, there will not be a single member of the House of Representatives that only accepts campaign contributions from individuals. Platts says he’s the only sitting representative who’s never taken money from businesses, PACs, special interests, or parties. He’s never even run a television ad.

One may admire Rep. Platts and his principled stand; he says some of his constituents have accepted his resignation more begrudgingly than others, wishing they could vote for him again. If you’re suspicious of money in politics and long-term incumbency, it feels like you’re losing one of the good guys. That’s one of the reasons Sen. DeMint argues for a mandatory cap similar to the one proposed by Platts—a cap that was never taken up by Republican leadership during his tenure in Congress.

“Self-term limits are a recipe for self-defeat, as the career politicians simply wait out the true reformers,” Sen. Jim DeMint has said.

Where do we go from here?

Would Congress be better off if the "true reformers" got their way? In the next installment, we'll look at what happens in states that institute term limits for their legislators, and what that tells us about the challenges Congress might face.