On March 21, Americans were given an unequivocal reminder of the aging composition of the nation’s upper house of Congress as they tuned in to the first day of Supreme Court confirmation hearings. As a part of the lifetime appointment confirmation process, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson faced questions on her experience, policy positions, and beliefs on contentious issues such as abortion. However, in the room were other individuals who were also seemingly appointed for life. Among the 22 members of the bipartisan Senate Judiciary Committee questioning her were Senators Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Grassley, who were not only the oldest members in the room, but are also the oldest members currently serving in the Senate. Their mere presence and prestigious rank on one of the Senate’s most powerful committees after several decades of holding the same seats highlighted the prevalence and persistence of incumbents in politics. This phenomenon is also a source of one of the most frequent complaints voiced towards the American government from voters across the political spectrum.
The absence of term limits in both the House of Representatives and the Senate has allowed politicians like Senators Grassley and Feinstein to retain power throughout seismic shifts in the American political and social landscape, including but not limited to the collapse of the Soviet Union, a rapid increase in globalization, a war on terror, a global financial meltdown, and a worldwide pandemic. All of these events have shifted the global balance of power in unique ways that have also had disproportionate effects on certain Americans over others, like the COVID pandemic’s impact on lower-income workers. The lack of term limits has undermined the election of leaders who may better represent the evolving needs of the nation throughout these major events. Incumbents hold an unparalleled advantage in elections that are intended to be competitive through the power of name recognition, bigger war-chests, and better campaign organization. This eliminates the fear of losing electoral accountability, especially in non-competitive states, raising the likelihood of unethical and egotropic behavior. For example, Senator Feinstein and several other GOP senators, including six-term Senator Inhofe, committed numerous ethical violations when they sold several million dollars worth of stock holdings after obtaining intelligence on the impact the coronavirus pandemic would have. However, their longevity in holding office insulated them from the fear of being held accountable, and all of the senators faced little to no consequences for their actions. Term limits should be instituted in both houses of Congress to prevent corruption and ineffective policymaking stemming from long-term incumbencies and to allow individuals with new ideas to enter the sphere of policy discussions in Washington D.C.
We can trace the issue of term limits back to the founding of the legislative branch in 1781 and the Constitutional Convention of 1787. When the Articles of Confederation were in effect during the late 18th century, term limits did exist. No representative was permitted to serve for a duration of “more than three years” under this system. However, many intellectuals like James Madison believed term limits would deprive new representatives of experience needed to hold office. Thus, at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, many delegates sought to bring forth a reasonable compromise on the issue. Included in the “Virginia Plan” was a provision that called for members of Congress to be ineligible for re-election after their terms had expired, though the proposal never came to fruition. The Constitution was ratified, and the issue of term limits was ignored under the premise that members of both the executive and legislative branches needed to stay in office long enough to develop adequate knowledge of the job.
In response to the framers’ inaction on term limits, many politicians were understood to follow certain norms such as only serving two terms in the presidency or following the voluntary rotation policy, in which members of Congress were expected to serve in different positions of power so as not to remain entrenched in one particular seat. These ideas stemmed from the Founder’s expectation that members would step down at the appropriate time and did not foresee the high re-election rate that incumbents enjoy today. However, Congress and various state legislatures have taken action to enact term limits. Most notably, in the aftermath of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s record-setting four terms, Congress enacted the 22nd amendment, which limited the president and vice president to two terms, effectively rebuking Roosevelt’s disregard for long-standing tradition. This chapter in history presents a critically important question: If presidents are term-limited, then why are members of Congress exempt from them? More so, are there scenarios in which term limits should not be implemented?
In comparing the example of the Supreme Court with Congress, we can see differences on the need for term limits. One may argue that the lack of term limits in the Supreme Court is also subject to the same criticism that is placed on members of Congress. However, the issue is fundamentally different with, as justices on the court are not policymakers, but instead interpreters of the current law. Unlike Congress, the Founders explicitly stated that justices should serve for life, implying their important role in American governance. While incumbency for policymakers facilitates corruption and narrow-minded solutions for an increasingly diversifying electorate, Supreme Court justices benefit greatly from their status as an appointment for life. The rigorous confirmation process ensures justices are confirmed on the basis of their qualifications and their lifetime appointment status ensures they stay insulated from partisan pressures and act in accordance with their true interpretation of the Constitution, which can also change over time. And if they misbehave or violate laws, there are provisions to impeach them, but they are rarely used due to the relative success of the system.
In the present day, we can clearly see the norms that the framers expected to be followed in Congress are largely disregarded. Prolonged terms have led to a massive disconnect between the average American and the composition of our legislative bodies. The average age in the Senate is 64.3 years while the same statistic is 38.1 years for all Americans. Term limits can also be linked to the overrepresentation of white senators. While only 60.1% of the population is white, 89% of the Senate are white. As incumbents continue to win in consecutive cycles, they prevent newer individuals from taking office who are more representative of America’s rapidly diversifying ethnic and racial makeup. The lack of term limits also allows the legislature to remain attached to dated social norms like gender roles. Despite raising awareness on gender inequality and increased research on the importance of including women in the legislative process, only a mere 24 of the 100 senators are women.
The wide gaps in age, racial makeup, and gender are very important as they translate to policy outcomes that do not represent the interests of the entire American people. The lack of women can be attributed to Congress’s refusal to enact abortion rights and abolish the pink tax, while the appallingly low representation of minorities like African-Americans can be attributed to the stalemate on voting rights and inaction on police brutality. Senators like Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein are seemingly invincible from accountability through their unparalleled electoral advantages as an incumbent, creating a power structure that facilitates their interests over the people’s. This power dynamic will only worsen the state of American policymaking and quality of life as problems like climate change will bring forth radical redistributions in resources. The country will need solutions that incorporate constituencies that have historically been left out of the bargaining table for a more equitable and just future. Term limits would be a stepping stone in the right direction towards this ideal by decentralizing institutionalized power amongst predominantly older white male senators who do not represent all Americans and are preoccupied with staying in power. Using the precedent of the 22nd Amendment, term limits need to be implemented for the efficacy and wellbeing of our democracy, and to ensure a better framework for policy making that safeguards against corruption and misrepresentation.
Categories: Domestic Affairs