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Term limits for Congress are wildly popular. But most experts say they'd be a bad idea

Congressional term limits are really popular with voters. With experts, not so much.
Catie Dull
Congressional term limits are really popular with voters. With experts, not so much.

Frustration with America's political system has led to some renewed interest in setting term limits for lawmakers, though it's an idea broadly opposed by experts.

Voters have long been supportive of hard caps on how long someone can be in office, but recent infighting among Republicans over who should be speaker of the U.S. House and health issues among aging members of Congress have reignited calls for federal term limits. (Ethics scandals at the U.S. Supreme Court have led to separate calls for judicial term limits.)

A Pew Research Center survey this summer found a whopping 87% of Americans say they support congressional term limits.

And it's one of those rare issues that appeals to people from across the political spectrum, with Democratic and Republican respondents in the Pew poll backing the policy in equal measure.

Casey Burgat, the director of the Legislative Affairs program at the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University, says that's not surprising.

"There's a lot of dysfunction in our politics, particularly within Congress," he says. "Congress is one of the most unpopular institutions we have. And so when we have something unpopular, it makes a lot of sense to refresh the people who serve in that institution."

The idea has over the years been proposed by Democratic and Republican candidates alike, including then-President Donald Trump. And the appeal for term limits has only grown recently, says Nick Tomboulides, executive director of an advocacy group called U.S. Term Limits.

"When you're talking about the average American and why 87% of them support term limits, it's the storytelling," he says. "It's these high-profile examples that you see of people who have either lost control, they have cognitive decline ... [and] they're making the most important decisions in our country."

The incumbency advantage

Tomboulides also points to stories of lawmakers staying in office despite scandals and ethics violations.

And he blames all of this on the power of incumbency.

"Ninety-seven percent of incumbents get reelected," he says. "Last election cycle, 100% of Senate incumbents on the ballot got reelected. Not a single sitting U.S. senator was defeated last cycle. And so from a democracy standpoint, from an election standpoint, our elections are not very democratic."

While the incumbency advantage is perhaps the most popular argument in support of term limits, academics who study this issue say it isn't as cut and dry as many people think it is.

Burgat says there are multiple factors that make it easier for incumbents to win elections, including redistricting. Most members of Congress are in uncompetitive seats drawn to particularly favor their party.

"Over 90% of our elections are uncompetitive, meaning we know essentially what party is going to win those elections, no matter what candidates are running," he says. "And so the faster you turn those politicians over, the more often you're going to have to replace them."

What research has found

Burgat says term limits don't solve the core problems in American politics that make people dislike Congress — things like gerrymandering, political polarization and the influence of special interests, as well as money in politics.

In fact, academics have broadly found that the effects of term limits are often either mixed or fall short of what proponents claim.

For example, supporters have argued term limits reduce polarization because lawmakers will be forced to be beholden to their constituents over their political parties. However, researchers found that term limits actually increased polarization in some cases.

Burgat says there is also evidence of some unintended consequences in the 16 states that have term limits for their state legislators.

Institutional knowledge

Susan Valdes is a Democratic state lawmaker in Florida, which is one of those 16 states.

"I've seen how the term limits have affected the policies at a state level and how much longer it takes to get good policies done," she says.

As a member of the Florida House, Valdes only gets a maximum of four two-year terms in office. She says she thinks of every term like one school year.

'"I'm going into my next election [thinking it] will be for my senior year," Valdes says. "And these six years in the Florida House have gone by so fast that really and truly the first two sessions, you're really just getting to know the ropes, understand how the lay of the land works, if you will, in that arena."

Florida state Reps. Susan Valdes, left, and Randy Fine high-five after debating a bill during a legislative session on March 8, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee / AP
Florida state Reps. Susan Valdes, left, and Randy Fine high-five after debating a bill during a legislative session on March 8, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla.

She says this is the case for pretty much everyone. Valdes says there's not a way for someone to train to become a legislator before getting into office.

Burgat says term limits often force people out of the job when they just start becoming effective and knowledgeable.

"And so when you term-limit someone," he says, "you are effectively cutting out their incentive to invest in learning how to do the job, to delve into policy issues at the depth that they need to and to really dive into how the procedures work, which just takes years. Because, again, there's no training ground for this. There's no training program."

But Tomboulides says he doesn't think lawmakers are spending their time gaining institutional knowledge, even when they have an unlimited amount of time in office. He says there is evidence that members of Congress spend most of their time raising money for their reelection.

"They're not studying the issues," Tomboulides says. "They're not reading these thousand-page bills because they're so focused on getting reelected. They're so focused on keeping the job rather than actually doing the job."

He says if politicians knew they had a limited time in office they would spend more time working for their constituents, instead of focusing on their next election.

But Valdes says she doesn't think term limits have created better legislators in her state.

"What I find is that we wind up trying to create legislation like we check our spaghetti," she says. "Let's see if it sticks to the wall and dinner's ready."

And she says what usually happens is that lawmakers have to go back during the next session and fix the unintended issues created by new policies.

"But in the meantime, what has happened is that people have been affected by those unintended consequences," Valdes says. "And that's where for me, the fairness, the equity, the righteousness of our policies and the intent of the laws that we pass sometimes get misguided."

Power of special interests

Some academics have found evidence that term limits give special interests more influence, because lobbyists and legislative staff have the bulk of the institutional knowledge in state legislatures.

Burgat says he also thinks term limits don't force lawmakers to be more beholden to their voters.

"In reality, studies have shown that term-limited lawmakers behave differently, that when you sever that electoral connection, when they're no longer dependent on voters to remain in office, then they start looking out for No. 1," he says. "They start looking out for themselves in a lot of different ways."

And that includes cozying up to lobbyists to line up their next job. Burgat says a lot of lawmakers don't want to forfeit all the relationships, institutional knowledge and policy expertise they gained in office.

But Tomboulides says he is not convinced that term limits equate to a big win for lobbyists and special interests. He says that's because, in his experience, lobbyists are some of the biggest opponents to his group's efforts.

"I've never had a lobbyist knock on my door and say, 'Hey, I really want to help you guys get term limits,' " he says. "It never happens. But I always have lobbyists opposing me."

Tomboulides says the fact that there is still debate about whether Congress should have term limits just shows the outsized influence that politicians have.

"Because we don't debate other 87% issues," he says. "We don't debate whether, like, my town should have a park or whether we should have, like, regular trash pickup — other 87, 90% issues. We just say this is what the American people want, this is what we're going to do. But term limits are imposed so strongly by the permanent political class in Washington."

And in the end, it is largely up to members of Congress to impose these limits on themselves.

A 1995 U.S. Supreme Court ruling went further to say that even if members of Congress managed to impose term limits on themselves, it could be ruled unconstitutional. That means congressional term limits might have to pass through a constitutional amendment, which is an exceedingly more difficult hurdle to clear.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.