Limiting Terms of Office for Members of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives

Bill Frenzel
Bill Frenzel
Bill Frenzel Former Brookings Expert

January 22, 1997

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before this distinguished Subcommittee in support of Congressional term limits, an attractive butterfly I have chased unsuccessfully for many years. First, however, I must make the usual disclaimer that the views presented here are my own, not those of the Brookings Institution.

I introduced my first term limits Constitutional Amendment soon after I was sworn in, in January of 1971. Any term limits proposal sounded fierce in those days, but, in fact, mine was a sissified eighteen year version. I introduced it each biennium thereafter, always seeking co-sponsorship from my colleagues. In twenty years, only one signed up. Sometime in that period I testified before a crowd of two at a desultory hearing in the Senate. Obviously, term limits was not the stuff of legislative dreams in those days.

But, the worm turned. In the 90’s, the issue picked up some smarter proponents; state referenda were passed; the idea began to attract the support of a strong majority of Americans. I suspect that support peaked sometime in 1994 when the public became very impatient with what it saw under the Capitol dome. Support, and certainly intensity, may be on the wane now, but the issue is still lively. Term limits still polls well, and old friends, like myself, remain steadfast in their support of the concept.

First, we ought to define the concept. Purists like short term limits, but versions under twelve years are asking for trouble. Short terms look extreme, probably because they are extreme. But my old eighteen year model won’t work, either. It fails the excitement test. Twelve years is a nice round number, and, for those who want action rather than an issue, the one most likely to succeed.

Other conditions should not be unnecessarily restrictive. Persons should be able to move to the other body when their time is up in one chamber, and should be able to run for the same chamber again after broken service. The idea is to restore mortality, and accountability, to Congress. It is not necessary to be punitive, to abuse legislators, or to destroy the legislature. Term limits should neither be a hair shirt nor an instrument of torture.

After the definition comes the argumentation. I don’t want to start any fights, but I really believe that most of the arguments I read and hear on both sides of this debate are not terribly persuasive. Term limits will neither perfect the Republic, nor tear it to pieces. For me, there is one overpowering argument for term limits, and one interesting argument against. The rest of the usual pros and cons seem to range from fun debating points to personal speculation.

For me, the clincher has always been that without term limits, the Congress is immortal. Even in recent years, after bank scandals, the Keating Five, and whatever else is happening now to bruise the people’s confidence in its Congress, incumbents have been, and are being, reelected with relentless regularity. Because many of us have been beneficiaries of that system, we all know the success ratios.

It is, of course, possible for incumbents to lose. But, usually those rare losses require a massive redistricting, 200 rubber checks, a conviction, or some other egregious hand-in-the-cookie-jar event.

A Member of Congress who can’t be defeated is not accountable. In my judgement, lack of accountability is a plague on Congress’ house which is worse than ethics problems, worse than campaign financing, and worse than polarizing party squabbling.

It is of course possible that Congress could sell its recording studios, restrict the frank to answering letters received, fire the two-thirds of its staff it doesn’t need for legislative purposes, close its District offices, and do all the other things necessary to eliminate its overwhelming election advantages. But, that is very unlikely, and, in today’s circumstances, House incumbents would still probably win anyway.

It is also possible that Members will begin to resume the 19th Century rates of retirement, but that, too, is unlikely. Here I add, parenthetically, that neither retirements after 20-40 years, nor the fact that a large proportion of the House has less than three terms of service, are signs of hope for accountability.

I won’t call the roll of the difficulties challengers face, but it is worth noting that capable challengers are not stupid. They know their chances are minuscule until the incumbent drops dead, or retires, more likely the former than the latter. Incumbent reelection success rates remain high even at times of great public rejection of government. Watergate and other scandals don’t seem to affect the monotonous reelection rates of incumbents.

One of the almost certain, and surely popular, side effects of term limits is that in restoring accountability, it will also add significant career risk. The professional, full-time, fully-staffed legislator whose reelection is now as sure as shooting ducks in a barrel will face significant risks. This group may not become extinct, but it will require an extraordinary combination of skill, timing and luck to serve in Congress for 30-40 years. Unsurprisingly, incumbents find this aspect of term limits distasteful.

The contrary argument, against term limits, I find most interesting is that it limits the choice of the voter. Most people would stipulate that. I do. That might make folks nervous had not the Framers, in the very beginning, already imposed three limitations on the voters. Nobody ever complains much about them, and so I consider the small restriction of choice imposed by term limits a tiny price to pay for making the Congress mortal.

The voters can elect another representative of about the same philosophical height and weight as the termed-out predecessor. In addition, under term limits as I define it, those voters may well get another shot at their House hero or heroine in a run for the Senate, or a later run for the House. The limits on the voters are modest. They surely don’t interfere with the processes of democracy, nor unduly frustrate voters’ conservative or liberal urges. The choice that is limited is, in fact, a non-choice. It is merely the choice to vote yea or nay for an incumbent who will be reelected anyway.

Mr. Chairman, confining this statement to only two of the arguments in the term limits debate may disappoint those who feel strongly about other facets of the debate. I will, of course, respond to questions on any aspect of term limits. In any case, your hearings will surely provide a comprehensive discussion of the issue.

I have no great passion for amending the Constitution. Bert Lance has always been my guide. Here, however, as with our fiscal difficulties, something is broken and needs to be fixed. I hope this distinguished subcommittee will begin the repair process promptly.