Would Term Limits Fix Political Polarization?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In response to the A&Q I wrote on political polarization, this reader wondered why I didn’t mention congressional term limits as a possible solution:


One potential solution you failed to explore is term limits on members of Congress. We place term limits on the president to avoid too much power accruing to one individual. However, when you have members of Congress sitting in the same seats term after term, in some cases for decades, that allows those individuals and their backers to retain disproportionate influence in the political process as well.
When you couple this issue with the fact that members of the House of Representatives are running for re-election every two years, you have large portions of Congress who are fund-raising more than they're governing.
My suggestion would be two-fold. First, limit members of both chambers of Congress to two terms. Second, extend the terms of members of the House of Representatives to three or four years.


Are term limits feasible, and would they help reduce political polarization?

This is an idea that’s been kicked around for decades, and many first-time candidates for Congress still pledge to voters that they’ll only serve a maximum number of years—the specific number varies—before returning home. (Not all of them keep that promise once in office, however.) Like our reader, advocates argue that the change would help free lawmakers from the burden of constant fundraising and restore the notion of “citizen legislators,” rather than professional politicians who quickly become co-opted by the entrenched special interests in Washington. And the more members of Congress who are liberated from the pressure of seeking reelection, the less likely it is that the two parties will cling so tightly to their ideological poles.

Yet term limits would be incredibly difficult to implement in practice. The Supreme Court has ruled that states cannot impose term limits on congressional candidates, so the only way to enact them would be through a constitutional amendment. The same goes for the reader’s suggestion of changing the term length for a member of the House of Representatives, since the two-year term is set out in the Constitution.

In 1994, Newt Gingrich led Republicans in making a constitutional amendment imposing term limits part of the “Contract with America” that helped the GOP win control of Congress. The measure gained majority support in the House, but it failed to clear the two-thirds threshold it needed to advance. Advocates for term limits have generally coalesced around the idea of two terms for senators (a total of 12 years) and three for members of the House (six years).

There are also good arguments against term limits. For one, opponents contend they are anti-democratic, since they take the choice away from voters who actually like their congressmen and want them to continue in office. And while term limits might keep some lawmakers from “going Washington,” they could also prevent members of Congress from gaining the institutional knowledge and deep policy expertise that many years of legislating and committee work provide. Major pieces of legislation could become even more rare, because issues and causes that already take years to gain support could lose political momentum each time Congress turns over. Another consequence is that as lawmakers lose expertise, unelected staff members who are not accountable to voters gain more power.