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Congress's Quixotic Push to Repeal Presidential Term Limits

June 25, 2009 - by Isabelle Cutting

22nd AmendmentIntroduced two weeks before this year’s Presidential Inauguration, H.J.Res.5 calls to amend the Constitution by removing the limit on the number of terms a President can serve. It would effectively repeal the 22nd Amendment, approved by Congress in 1947 and ratified by the States in 1951.

Although providing ample room for contention, the bill has aroused next to no news coverage. Instead, other Internet voices can be heard linking the resolution to the current president. Here, for example, is a viral email that is being sent around with the subject, “America wanted change! Boy is it coming!”, fully equipped with references to Communism and Fascism.

Yet, as such legislation has been on the political scene much longer than Obama, it is likely not tied to his presidency. Legislation calling to repeal the 22nd Amendment has regularly been proposed to Congress for the past twenty years and has died in committee with equal consistency.

While the long-term narrative of this legislation demonstrates fading interest among Congress members, OpenCongress viewers have placed H.J.Res5 in the position of most frequently viewed bill on the site. Similarly, last week, the bill received the most votes on our Battle Royale function.

The history of these dead-end bills dates back to the beginning of George H.W. Bush’s presidency and the 101st Congress. In 1989, H.J.Res.264 was introduced by Rep. David Martin (R-N.Y.) and managed to capture a remarkable 120 co-sponsors. It’s companion legislation, S.J.Res.36 was introduced by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the current Majority Leader of the Senate. Here are more related bills from that congressional session.

Only in the 109th Congress, however, have these bills (of which there were two that session) since seen notable support from Congress members. One of these bills, H.J.Res.24 carried support from four democrats and gained bipartisan status with Rep. James Sensenbrenner’s (R-Wis.) graces. It is worth highlighting that its lead sponsor was Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the current Majority Leader of the House.

When asked why Democrats would propose such legislation while a Republican held the presidential office, Hoyer responded that repealing the 22nd Amendment was not a matter of partisan politics but of enhancing democracy. He explained that if the public wanted to elect a president for a third term, they should have the capability to vote for that candidate. He argued that with such legislation,

“the American people would have restored to themselves and future generations an essential democratic privilege to elect who they choose in the future.”

The second related bill introduced in the 109th Congressional session H.J.Res.9, in turn, was introduced by Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) without any co-sponsors. From the 105th to this current congressional session, Serrano has consistently introduced this legislation. The first two times, the bill was shared with co-sponsor, former Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) and in the 108th Congress, the bill even found additional democrat influence from Reps. Barney Frank (D-Md.) and Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.).

When recently asked about his motivation behind the recurrent bill, Serrano stated that:

“I introduce it [the repeal bill] as a matter of principle: I do not believe there should be term limits for any elected official. Elections should be the deciding factor. I do not receive advice or support on this bill from the White House or any other source."

Serrano’s most recent version of the bill has also failed to capture any co-sponsors. It is likely that, like its predecessors, this legislation will die in committee and that subsequent concerns, potentially behind the recent action around this bill on OpenCongress, can be somewhat eased.

Furthermore, movements to amend the constitution are deliberately difficult and never efficient processes. This is partially due to the mechanisms of federalism kicking in, requiring that constitutional amendments be ratified by three quarters of the States.

As the advocate voice in the movement to repeal the 22nd Amendment is at times counterintuitive and less publicized, here are some links for further discussion:

Isabelle Cutting is an OpenCongress Research Assistant

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