Is there a case for term limits

100920_dingell_605_apJohn Dingell has served more than 57 years in the House of Representatives as a Democrat from Michigan. This John Dingell has anyway. A John Dingell has represented largely the same district for more than 80 years: his father served more than two decades before John Jr (now a not so junior 86) stepped into his shoes. Is this right?

Despite serving only two-year terms, House members often have more stability than their Senate colleagues. House members can represent relatively homogenous districts that are securely either liberal or conservative. And if communities are not naturally homogenous (and they are becoming more so anyway) district boundaries can be drawn in such a way as to ensure the same party continues to hold it. The House is supposed to represent changing moods in the country, while the Senate represents stability and the states.

To some extent, the House does provide that up to date mandate. Swing districts, after all, can change hands every two years, and while it is rarely that frequent, Republicans made major gains in 1994 and 2010 while Democrats did so in 2006 and 2008. And yet a man named John Dingell has represented broadly the same Michigan district since FDR’s first inauguration.

The Founders envisaged citizen legislators and executives who would take a few years off from their real jobs – probably as farmers or landowners – to serve their country and then return to home states. They did not seek to create a class of career politicians. But nor did they write any rules to prevent it. The Constitution imposes no term limits for Congress, and term limits for the presidency date to the Twenty Second Amendment of 1951.

Prior to FDR there were, however, traditions of presidential term limits. George Washington stepped down after two terms, and no-one subsequently sought re-election after two terms for over 100 years. Teddy Roosevelt stepped down after two very nearly complete terms (he succeeded McKinley only six months into the latter’s term) but then thought it was acceptable to run again four years later, when he sought election as an independent and pushed the Republican into third place.

It was Teddy’s cousin, Franklin, who became the first and only president to actually get elected to a third, and indeed fourth, term.

There has never been a clear consensus, even in tradition, let alone law, that any particular term limit should apply to Congress. Attempts to impose limits as law fall foul of the Constitution and, though the House passed a measure calling for a twelve year limit in 1995, it did not secure the two-thirds majority required for it to proceed as a constitutional amendment.

Should the Constitution prevent Michiganders from consistently returning the same member to office? While it is plainly a restraint on the democratic process, it seems no more so than term limits for the White House. The advantages of consistent turnover in the legislature, and drawing members of Congress from a wider pool than the lawyers, teachers and union officials who are attracted to life as a professional politician would seem to outweigh the disadvantages of this small limit on democracy.

Dingell may yet reach sixty years in Congress, but let him be the first and last member to do so. Term limits would benefit American public life. 

Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at




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