Time for Republicans to move on from term limits

Out of power, some reach for plank in 1994’s Contract with America

Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, left, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., lower right, want members of Congress to face term limits.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, left, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., lower right, want members of Congress to face term limits. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 10, 2021 at 9:00am

ANALYSIS — Out of the White House and out of power on Capitol Hill, Republicans have gone back a quarter of a century in their playbook in search of the trick play that will get them back into the game: term limits. 

It wasn’t the key cog that helped them take control of the House in the 1990s, and it’s unlikely to be the game changer in upcoming elections. But it’s not stopping ambitious Republicans from rolling it out once again. 

Six GOP senators including Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rick Scott of Florida are the latest to propose limiting the number of terms members can serve in Congress. 

The gang has decided that “the system fails the American people” if members serve more than two six-year terms in the Senate and three two-year terms in the House, according to the Cruz press release that called “political careerism” a departure from what the founders intended. 

“[I] will continue fighting to hold career politicians accountable,” added Cruz. Rubio, who has been in elected office for all but four years of his adult life after law school, is running for a third term in 2022. 

“Conservatives are inexplicably trapped in 1993, when a decades-long Dem lock on Congress led us to believe that Congress was the problem. In reality, as we should know by now, Congressional weakness is the chief dysfunction in the Constitutional order and a threat to liberty,” Gregg Nunziata, Rubio’s former general counsel, said on Twitter.

“But, supporting term limits is cheap performative stuff, unlikely to happen and if it did, counter productive to the pretended ends. Conservatives wasting their breath on this cynical nonsense are conservatives who aren’t meaningfully leading,” added Nunziata, who was also counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

Plank in 1994 ‘contract’

Republicans keep coming back to term limits, in part, because it was a plank in their Contract with America in 1994, when the GOP won the House majority for the first time in 40 years. 

Never mind that Republicans were well positioned in those midterm elections before the contract was released in late September 1994; the subsequent Citizen Legislature Act in 1995 didn’t get enough votes to go anywhere (in part because 40 Republicans voted against it), and many GOP members later violated their own term-limit pledges (no need to mention George Nethercutt by name). The fact remains: Republicans can’t quit term limits. (Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick J. Toomey signed on to the term limits proposal and, to his credit, bowed out of the House after three terms and is not running for a third term in the Senate in 2022.)

While Republicans see political opportunity, it’s even less clear whether increasing the turnover in Congress would help the legislative environment in Washington. Term limit proposals have consistently been at odds with the experts who cover Congress. 

“[I]nstead of channeling ambition in the right, public-interest direction, term limits have the opposite effect: New lawmakers immediately begin planning for ways to reach the next level, or to find lucrative lobbying jobs when they are term-limited out,” Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann wrote in The Washington Post nearly a decade ago. “They have no incentive to do things for the long-term and no regard for maintaining their own institutions. With the loss of expertise among senior lawmakers, power devolves to permanent staff members and to lobbyists.”

“If anything, voters should look to candidates with a stake in the regular order, an understanding of the need to compromise, a willingness to build expertise in important policy areas, and an incentive to listen to constituents — all features that are more likely among politicians with longer horizons,” they continued.

Turnover vs. experience

Implicit in the term limit proposal is that there are too many politicians who have been on the Hill for too long and not enough turnover.

“I wish there was less turnover,” David Hawkings, editor in chief of The Fulcrum, said Monday. “There’s not nearly enough institutional memory in Congress anymore. There are not enough members willing to stay long enough to learn how to do the hard work of building relationships and legislating.”

Clearly, those warnings don’t trump the potential political benefits. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley thinks there’s some juice in the idea, or at least doesn’t want other 2024 GOP presidential contenders getting too far out in front of a key issue, since she tweeted her approval of the senators’ proposal.

If Republicans are sincerely concerned about politicians sticking around the Hill too long, why not reach further back into the bag of ideas and add an age limit to Congress? 

Senator in ’60s wanted age limit

Back in 1965, Republican Sen. John J. Williams of Delaware advocated a mandatory retirement age of 65 for elected officials. Even though a bill never passed, Williams confirmed the spirit of his belief by not running for reelection in 1970, when he was 66 years old. 

The idea isn’t completely absurd. In Canada, senators have to be between 30 and 75 years old. And while the average age of a House member in the 117th Congress is 58 and the average senator is 63, there are more than a handful of members who are considerably older.  

At a minimum, a top age limit could be a way for Republicans to finally get rid of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The California Democrat is one of 11 House members who are 80 or older. Another 18 members are between 75 and 80, not counting New York Democrat Carolyn B. Maloney, who turns 75 on Feb. 19. 

An age limit, though, would also end the reign of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky Republican is one of 11 senators 75 years old or older. That doesn’t count Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal, who’ll join the Senate’s 75+ club on Feb. 13. 

Oklahoma Republican James M. Inhofe isn’t the oldest senator. But the 86-year-old was just reelected in 2020, which means he’ll be serving in Congress into his 90s. Alabama Republican Richard C. Shelby, 86, just announced he won’t seek reelection. So he’ll be gone before he reaches 90. Iowa Republican Charles E. Grassley, 87, has not announced whether he’ll run again. Of course, many of the elderly senators have their faculties but anyone who has been covering the Hill knows of members who have served past their prime. 

“Someone who is in his or her 80s brings experiences to the table, to the debate, that no one else can bring,” Hawkings said of the diversity of ages and tenures in a Congress without limits. “It’s one of the few things that keeps Congress really interesting; the mix of people with too much and too little experience.”

If the term limiting crowd really wants to get serious about cracking down on career politicians, they should embrace a resign-to-run law, similar to what is in place at the state level in five states. Members of Congress couldn’t neglect the job they were elected to do and use it as a springboard for higher office. Under such a law, if a senator is not in his or her final year in office, they’d need to resign before running for president, hypothetically. Then we’d see who is serious about legislating, or campaigning. 

All of these measures would likely face a similar fate: defeat. They would require a constitutional amendment, which would require two-thirds support in Washington and in the states. That would mean two-thirds of the members of Congress voting to limit their current power and state legislators voting to limit the future power they hope to hold.

Paul V. Fontelo contributed to this report.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.