Congressional Tenure Limited to Two Consecutive Terms?
by James L. Morrison

[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in On the Horizon, 1992, 1(1), 9. It is posted here with permission from Jossey Bass Publishers.]

The idea of term limits for Congress members has gained momentum in the past three years, and is presently drawing widespread attention. The popularity of term limits stems from the America's growing distrust of its politicians and from numerous complaints about abuses by Congressional members. Advocates of term limits face the challenge of Congress. It would take a constitutional amendment to pass the idea by two thirds majority of the house and the senate. Supporters got creative however, and argued that an individual state had the right to restrict the tenure of its own congressional leaders without a constitutional amendment. In November of 1990, Colorado became the first state to vote on such a proposal, which it passed overwhelmingly. That vote, followed by the approval of term limits in California and Oklahoma, has sparked similar movements in more than a dozen states. A 1991 poll indicated 70% approval of term limits among Democrats, Republicans, and across racial groups and diverse income and educational levels. [Jost, K. (1992). Term limits: The issues. CQ Researcher, 2(1), 3-8.]

Term limit supporters hope to get initiatives to restrict state legislative and congressional tenure on the ballots in a dozen or more states in 1992 and 1994. At the present time, however, only 23 states allow initiatives. The only national group established to oppose term-limits was a skeletal clearinghouse and speakers bureau called "Americans for Ballot Freedom: Let the People Decide." The group was established in May of 1991, but failed to make a go of it and disbanded in October. The constitutional issue remains a major question mark for term-limit proponents. Most legal and political experts believe that the states have no power to limit congressional terms. [Jost, K. (1992). New initiatives planned. CQ Researcher, 2(1), 18-19.]


Congressional privilege and power is based on seniority. In the long term, states that unilaterally restrict congressional tenure legislate themselves into a weaker position of power relative to those states that do not restrict congressional tenure. Unless all states participate in term-limit legislation (e.g., through constitutional reform), it will not be in the interest of any state to continue the term limitation process. Thus, this movement is likely to die without much legislative impact.

However, this movement as well as the grassroots support for the candidacy of Ross Perot are signals of general dissatisfaction with the democratic process and the level of representation afforded to individual citizens. While the term limitation and Perot movements may be unsuccessful, their value as signals of social dissatisfaction should not be lost. In terms of direct implications for higher education, the public perception of the role of colleges and universities in the community is likely to have increasingly important impact on the ability of institutions to secure funding for their operations. Sensitivity to individual issues, particularly to issues important to the disadvantaged (e.g. cultural diversity, and violence to women), will demonstrate that the institution is "in tune with the needs of the community."

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