The Case Against Term Limits

Lately, I have been pondering the issue of what can we do to keep our representatives in check, while giving them the constitutional powers that were granted to them.  This is part one of the three part series on controlling the power of our representatives.

In the past couple of months, I have heard two prominent individuals argue that the solution to our overpowering government is term limits.  Both of these people used slightly different reasons for term limits, but the argument was essentially the same.

For convenience sake, I am going to quote Glenn Beck’s argument in “Glenn Beck’s Common Sense”:

After George Washington’s first two terms, Americans begged him to continue his service, be he refused, believing it would set a bad precedent.  Jefferson, citing Washington’s example, also refused to serve a third term, noting that history shows how easily [long-term public service] degenerates into an inheritance.

Of course, FDR didn’t care about Washington’s or Jefferson’s concerns.  He stayed on for four terms–a reign that went so well that we followed it up by ratifying the 22nd Amendment, ensuring that it would never happen again…

Instituting term limits on all public servants is the only way to limit the damage that can be caused by those who lack the character to assume such a role.  Ben Franklin insisted that service to your country not be a full-time job or career–and he was exactly right.  Our public servants must be sent back into private life without the obscene perks they’re used to.

Will term limits result in good politicians being thrown out of office too early, the proverbial baby with the bathwater? Absolutely–but that’s a small price to pay for the freedom this will grant us. Freedom from corruption, greed, arrogance, and, most of all, freedom from those who put their carrers above their country.

Our part is simple: You must seek out and support those candidates who strongly support serious term limits.  Any candidate who campaigns on the idea that their job is a temporary one is a candidate worth looking closely at.

— pages 55-56

Beck hits on one of the key arguments against term limits, but he approaches it from the wrong perspective when he discusses the removal of good candidates as a result of term limits.  Beck’s focus is on the candidate and not on the voter.  Actually, his whole argument focuses entirely on the candidate and not at all on the voter.

So, let’s ask the question a little differently.  When we institute term limits, who really are we controlling?  I don’t think that we are controlling the politicians.  Rather, I would argue that the limitation is placed on the voter.  My voice in support of a candidate is limited to a certain amount of terms.

The most common term limit rules that I have heard is 6 terms for a Representative and 2 terms for a Senator.  If a person decides to run as a Representative then as a Senator they will serve for 24 years.  That sound like the career politician that Franklin was warning us against.  So, what have we done but rather more formalize the system by which one becomes a career politician.

It’s interesting that Beck says our part is simple.  He argues that we need to seek out and support people who will support serious term limits. I would argue he is wrong.  First it is not simple.  Need, I point out Senators Hatch and Bennett?  Both of them ran campaigns that called for term limits.  But what happened after all these years.

I would argue that our part is not simple, but essential.  We must seek out candidates who have the same moral fiber that Washington and Jefferson had will term limit themselves.

One example of this is Senator Tom Coburn.  In 1994, he promised that he would not seek office for more that three terms when he ran to serve as a Representative from Oklahoma.  He kept that promise.  After a two year hiatus, he returned to political life in 2004 to serve as Senator.  My understanding is that he did this at the request of many supporters, but I don’t have any evidence for that.

I am not saying that we should only vote for people who make the promise to only serve for X amount of terms.  I don’t think that is a good measure of a candidate.  I use Coburn as an example of a politician with integrity.  We need to seek out candidates who have the integrity of Coburn, Washington, and Jefferson.

If we institute term limits, we will be imposing on individual freedoms.  We will not be limiting congressman, rather we will be limiting the people.  We will be taking away our fundamental right to vote for the person we want to represent us.


  1. The mere fact that Congresspeople have turned their jobs into careers and entitlements due to the apathy of the people is the strongest argument in favor of term limits. Does anyone really believe that congress should be reelected at a 95% rate?

    Yes, we need term limits to control the way people vote. In fact, it is the only way to generate the healthy turnover as the Founders expected.

    1. See, here is where I disagree. You are arguing that the best cure for political apathy is to reduce people’s power in their vote. I would argue that it wrong. The best way to cure political apathy is by increasing the power in the vote. And in reality, we can’t do that, because just having access to voting as about as powerful as it can be. But by limiting people’s ability to vote will increase their apathy.

      Why don’t people vote? Well, “I don’t like any of them” is a very likely answer. So, why add to the excuse list, “I like the guy we had in there before, but now I can’t vote for him.” The better way to generate healthy turn over (and increase voter turnout), is to elect honorable men. The same type of men that Beck asks us to look for, but not with term limites as the measuring stick.

  2. The problem I have with not limiting terms is that as a candidate who is favored by the media gains monetary ties for campaign funds (which become more valuable to the donors as the relationship need not end) and can begin to put his people in positions to conduct elections and control the legal system, the ability to even raise awareness about how bad the leader is become hampered.

    Putin has been popular in Russia long after it should have been obvious that he is a disaster for the Russians and the region. Hugo Chavez, Robert Mugabe; they have control of the media, the electoral process and society in general. As a result, they only need to steal some of their mandate. The rest will come from those they fool and/or frighten into voting the right way.

    They didn’t gain all this control overnight. Laws were changed, constitutions were amended, legal systems subverted, opposition voices silenced, poor people indoctrinated.

    But then, I am pretty much losing faith in democracy. Sure, it is the “worst system except for all the others” but being the least crappy method of organizing a society just doesn’t cut it anymore. And as ancient Greek democracy and Roman republican values show, people eventually give freedom up. It might take centuries but eventually humans get the enslavement they want.

    The answer, of course is to build Skynet and turn control over to super-intelligent toaster ovens.

  3. Yes, term limits place the limit on the voter. Just like all constitutional clauses do. In fact, that’s the very purpose of a limited constitution–to place appropriate limits that take us out of the realm of straight democracy and place us in a system with what Madison calls “auxiliary precautions,” or added measures that restrict human action. But we don’t think this way anymore. Now we couch everything in terms of “individual freedoms,” like Ancient Greece, and we neglect the most important political action that ever occurs: statecraft. We’d be a lot healthier if we cooled down on individual rights and started thinking in terms of how best to divide power institutionally in government.

  4. In an ideal world, everyone who goes to the voting booth would have an excellent knowledge of every candidates’ qualifications, integrity, and behavior.

    We do not live in an ideal world.

    Incumbents have a political advantage at the voting booth. Plenty of studies confirm this. Also, time in office breeds corruption- not necessarily everyone, but far too many.
    Many politicians will make promises of self imposed term limits when they first run. In fact a majority of elected officials that have been in for 8+ years at one point stated something like “I will not be a career politician” or “I only intend on serving one/two terms” and… well… breaking that promise didn’t end up hurting them.

    The Utah Legislature repealed term limits in 2003. Beyond looking for politicians who simply state they won’t be career politicians, we need to reinstate term limits for all those who would otherwise compromise their integrity. The currently elected officials are not likely to vote for term limits, despite an opposing viewpoint from their constituents. I’d recommend that all delegates determine their respective candidates’ views on term limits, and vote accordingly.

So, What do you think?