Donald Trump wants to make members of Congress step down after a few years. But it’s wishful thinking, mostly for these four reasons:
1) The Supreme Court says passing term-limit laws is unconstitutional.
In 1995, the Supreme Court decided in a 5 to 4 vote that states or Congress can’t just make a law limiting the number of terms members of Congress can serve. The decision essentially wiped off the books term-limit laws that 23 states had for their congressional delegations. (The decision didn’t affect term limits for state legislatures, and there are 15 states that impose them.)
The court said that for term limits to be constitutional, we’d have to amend the Constitution.
And actually, changing the Constitution is exactly what Trump proposed Tuesday:
“If I’m elected president I will push for a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress. They’ve been talking about that for years,” Trump said in a speech in Colorado championing his new package of ethics reforms. “Decades of failure in Washington and decades of special interest dealing must and will come to an end.”
But there’s a problem with that idea, too. And it’s:
2) Constitutional amendments are really, really, really hard to pass.
Presidential candidates routinely call for constitutional amendments, but rarely with success.
For one, changing the Constitution requires one of the hardest things to do in politics. It requires an agreement by a two-thirds supermajority of Congress and then to be ratified by three-fourths of states, or 38 out of 50.
Only 27 proposals out of countless ideas in our country’s 240-year history have climbed that steep hill.
This isn’t the first time Trump has proposed one this campaign cycle alone. Back when he and other GOP presidential hopefuls floated the idea of changing the 14th Amendment to eliminate birthright citizenship, I dove into the circumstances surrounding those 27 changes to our Constitution. I found that the United States is often only spurred to change it under extenuating circumstances, such as political crises, war and death.
3) Many political scientists think term limits are a bad idea.
There is evidence that term limits create more competitive elections, said Josh Chafetz, a law professor and congressional expert with Cornell University. But he said most political scientists would agree that term limits don’t make sense in a body that deals with as many complex issues as Congress. In fact, paradoxically, term limits could increase the power of those who can stay around the Hill for as long as they want: lobbyists.
“If members are restricted to only serving a few terms,” Molly Reynolds, a congressional expert with the Brookings Institution told The Fix in an email, “the logic goes, they have neither the time nor the incentive to develop the relevant expertise they need to be good at their jobs. If members don’t have that expertise themselves, they’re more likely to rely on outsiders, including lobbyists, to replace that expertise.”
4) Congress would probably never agree to it (and never has).
Trump is right, imposing term limits on Congress isn’t a new idea. Politicians — especially those on the right — have been floating the idea for years as a way to crack down on corruption. The thinking goes that once a lawmaker spends too much time in Washington, he or she becomes part of Washington and incapable of effectively serving people outside of it. So let’s put a limit on how long they can be in Washington.
But once those pro-term-limit lawmakers get into office, very, very few of them have actually tried to put their words into action.
Back in 1995, when the Supreme Court ruled term limits unconstitutional, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted on four versions of term limits. But three of those proposals, as the New York Times reported at the time, even failed to get a bare majority. There really hasn’t been a major push for term limits since.
And that makes sense when you think about it: Why would lawmakers agree to campaign for a job they’re just going to leave in a few years?
Some lawmakers have decided to impose their own term limits. But history is littered with broken term-limit promises. Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) resigned his seat in 2000 to honor a campaign pledge to retire after three terms. But in 2011, he was back, saying the idea of term limits is flawed unless everyone agrees to them.
“When it came to getting committee assignments it harmed me,” he told the Weekly Standard in 2004. “When I say harmed me, I mean it harmed my district.” (Salmon says he’s retiring at the end of this year.)
We’re picking on Salmon, but lots of lawmakers have and continue to run for office in spite of making campaign pledges to leave office at a certain date.
In other words, proposing term limits for Congress is a popular thing to say on the campaign trail. But it’s not such a popular thing to advocate for once you’re actually in Congress. And of all the reasons Trump’s term-limit proposal won’t happen, this is probably the most salient: Congress doesn’t want it.