February 20, 2002
It's time to realize that the term limits movement itself has
limits. It works well for the president, governors, state legislators,
and even congressional chairmanships, where the trappings of power
But it makes no sense for individual Congressmen to pledge to
term-limit themselves when their colleagues do not play by the same
rules. Individual resignations based on term limits are like
unilateral disarmament while our enemies keep their weapons.
In 1994, some of the best newcomers to Congress promised to limit
their tenure to six years and to vote for legislation to establish that
rule for all Members of Congress. They fulfilled their promise by
supporting a constitutional amendment for term limits in 1995, but they
were outvoted by those opposed to term limits.
Many of the best advocates for less government and congressional
term limits did not run again in 2000, including Tom Coburn, Charles
Canady, Matt Salmon, Mark Sanford, Jack Metcalf, David McIntosh, and
Helen Chenoweth. They honored the letter more than the spirit of their
Two of those Republican seats were immediately grabbed by
Democrats. The liberals never fell for the ruse of promising to
relinquish office after three terms, and the term limits movement
shamelessly campaigned to defeat conservatives who realized how
counterproductive it is for one Member to abandon the fight.
It makes no sense for conservatives to leave after six years and
abdicate power to the Democrats who insist on staying for decades.
There is little evidence that conservative constituents wanted the guys
they elected to give up the fight against the liberals who remained in
The original goal of the term limits movement certainly was not to
advantage incumbents who support bigger government. But that's the
result when conservatives retire after six years, letting liberals rise
the seniority ladder.
Meanwhile, the term limits movement suffered a major setback in
the 1995 U.S. Supreme Court decision in U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton,
declaring unconstitutional the congressional term limits laws of 23
states. Justice Clarence Thomas issued a brilliant 89-page dissent,
but his was a minority opinion.
Showing its frustration, the term limits movement adopted a
desperate plan in late 1995 to plunge America into a Constitutional
Convention that might possibly adopt term limits. Although permitted
by Article V, this method of amending the U.S. Constitution has never
been used and would be a dangerous leap into the unknown.
The late Chief Justice Warren Burger made the definitive statement
about this method when he said: "There is no effective way to limit or
muzzle the actions of a Constitutional Convention.... After a
Convention is convened, it will be too late to stop the Convention if
we don't like its agenda."
Targeting 18 states with a $10 million budget, the term limits
movement circulated petitions to put initiatives on the ballot in
November 1996 purporting to instruct state legislators to vote for term
limits, but the fine print of these petitions instructed legislators to
pass a resolution calling for a Constitutional Convention. This bait-
and-switch operation, fortunately, failed.
Diehard term limits advocates continue to harass congressional
candidates to self-limit themselves despite overwhelming evidence that
it causes a result hostile to the original rationale for term limits.
Republicans who acquiesced in the term limit pledge should
continue to fight for across-the-board term limits and limited
government, but not abdicate power to those on the other side by
fulfilling a pledge that is damaging to the conservative cause.
We hope that conservative Members of Congress will speak out
against the midnight automatic pay raises that Congress repeatedly
gives itself. But the cause of fiscal integrity is not advanced one
iota when an individual Congressman rejects his own pay raise.
The record of the last decade proves that, when individual
Republicans self-limit themselves, it not only fails to achieve the
stated goal of a part-time citizen legislature, but in fact it greases
the ladder for powerful incumbents to be reelected again and again.
Party leaders with seniority even penalize their own party members who
limit their terms by refusing to assign them to important committees.
No one can limit government by refusing to participate in
government. An individual Member of Congress resigning in the name of
term limits is self-defeating to the cause of limited government.
Term limits is a fine idea when it operates on a level playing
field, e.g., applying equally to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton (per
the 22nd Amendment), or limiting all governors or state legislators in
a given state. But it's a terrible idea when it is used to force
Republicans out of Congress and leave Democrats in power.