Term limits

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Term limits generally refers to restrictions placed on the number of terms an elected official may serve, regardless of their ability to be reelected. This page deals with term limits in the U.S. Congress.



Historically, term limits have figured most prominently in the executive branch of the U.S. government. While the Constitution did not originally mandate limits for the office of the presidency, George Washington, the first president (1789-1797), started the tradition of self-imposed limits by serving only two terms.[1] The precedent was followed for 144 years, until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for and won a third term in 1940 (he would eventually win a fourth).[2] In 1951, Congress passed and 41 states ratified the Twenty-Second Amendment, which forbade any citizen from being elected president more than twice (or once if he/she had previously served more than 2 years of another presidential term).[3]

In Congress, however, no tradition or statute regarding term limits has prevailed since the ratification of the Constitution. During the American Revolution, delegates to the Continental Congress were limited to three one-year terms over a period of six years under the Articles of Confederation. When Rhode Island defied the rule, however, Congress dropped the issue. In the years leading up to the Constitutional Convention, the Founding Fathers were divided over the principle of “rotation in office,” as congressional term limits were then called. Washington and Thomas Jefferson favored it, while James Madison and Alexander Hamilton opposed it. Ultimately, term limits were excluded from the Constitution.[4]

Until the Civil War, there was little reason for term limits to become an issue, as few members of Congress chose to serve more than two terms. This began to change as Congress organized permanent committees, which were chaired by the members with the most seniority. With the incentive to increase their power in Congress, many members began serving for longer periods of time. By the twentieth century, it was not uncommon for service in the House or Senate to be one’s primary career.[5] Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) holds the record for time in the Senate; having been first elected in 1958 and continuing through 2010. In fact, in the 111th Congress (2009-2011), Byrd was one of three active senators with over thirty-five years of experience in the Senate.[6] The others were:

  • Sen.