Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post suggesting they would endorse a constitutional amendment to limit the number of times a legislator can run for re-election to the same office, an idea that was also popularized by President-elect Donald Trump during his campaign.
Cruz and DeSantis argued,
“Though our Founding Fathers declined to include term limits in the Constitution, they feared the creation of a permanent political class that existed parallel to, rather than enmeshed within, American society.”
The idea of term limits, connected to the notion of “rotation in office,” was popular during the early days of the American republic. Citizens at the time viewed term limits as a means to prevent corruption and distant, entrenched interests staying permanently in power. They worried that a lack of change in higher office could be destructive to republican government.
Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend Edward Rutledge in 1788,
“I apprehend that the total abandonment of the principle of rotation in the offices of president and senator will end in abuse. But my confidence is that there will for a long time be virtue and good sense enough in our countrymen to correct abuses.”
Under the Articles of Confederation, term limits restricted representatives to three terms in any six-year period. 1 However, some of the Constitution’s strongest advocates rejected the notion that sweeping out legislators by law would reduce corruption.
James Madison argued that term limits might actually lead to government dysfunction, and he felt that frequent elections were a better check on power than forcing legislators out of office by law. Madison wrote in Federalist 53 that the higher proportion of new representatives swept into office due to term limits could lead to poor decisions and corruption from a wave of inexperienced legislators.
Madison surmised that the “greater the proportion of new members, and the less the information of the bulk of the members, the more apt will they be to fall into the snares that may be laid for them.” 2
Ultimately, the opponents to term limits won and the Constitution was ratified without them.
Even though the framers of the Constitution ultimately dropped term limits, the debate over rotation for federal officials continued. Through the 19th century, a regular rotation in office was common as citizens and politicians believed by creed and custom that periodic changes in public office were healthy for the republic. There were also practical limits on time in office - shorter life spans. However, in the 20th century as lifespans increased, long-term incumbency increased substantially.
Growth in governmental scope produced less turnover and more careerism than previous eras. This led to a movement to curtail the power of near-permanent stays in office.
Term limits on the chief executive were introduced after the four concurrent elections of President Franklin Roosevelt. 3 While earlier presidents had served no more than the two-term precedent set by George Washington, FDR stayed in office nearly 13 years, prompting fears of a calcified presidency. In 1951, the United States ratified the 22nd Amendment to strictly limit the president to two terms.
Reformers set their sights on legislative incumbency too. A wave of states passed term limit restrictions on their legislators in the mid-1990s, and the reforms attracted broad and bipartisan support. But the Supreme Court struck down these laws in U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, in which they were rejected over conflict with Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution. 4
The fight continues today to bring about rotation in office and remove the obstacles to limited public service. We know that both houses of Congress will not vote themselves out of a career, which leaves Article V as the only true method of imposing term limits.
2. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed53.asp&sa=D&ust=1519030048459000&usg=AFQjCNEzbMrDxM0NOzF6XOoWDsaBHN-63w, https://www.congress.gov/resources/display/content/The%2BFederalist%2BPapers%23TheFederalistPapers-53&sa=D&ust=1519030048458000&usg=AFQjCNH1z9hvFoaRfTgqjxZi5DWuCGT75w