Changed Conditions May Justify Term Limits

Published October 21, 2016

Advocates for term limits want to amend the Constitution to add them. Their most common argument is that restricting how long an elected official may serve will curb special interests’ influence and other federal abuse.

The Articles of Confederation, the document governing the United States between 1781 and 1789, restricted members of Congress to three years of service out of every six, but when drafting the Constitution, the framers consciously decided not to include term limits. Were the framers correct to omit them? Or are modern advocates correct to seek them?

The framers were right for their times and modern advocates are right for ours.

One reason the framers included an amendment process was to enable Americans to keep the Constitution abreast of changing conditions. We have amended the Constitution several times for precisely this reason. For example, the founding generation provided for a lengthy gap between Election Day and the inauguration of the newly-chosen Congress and president. Eighteenth-century transportation technology rendered the time necessary because a move to the national capital might consume weeks. The disadvantage of this delay was it gave lame-duck officials over four months to act in ways contrary to the popular will.

By 1933, the successive inventions of the steamship, train, automobile, and airplane enabled people from anywhere else in the country to travel to Washington, D.C., within a day or two. Hence, the 20th Amendment accelerated presidential and congressional inauguration from March to January.

Several developments since the founding may justify term limits:

The federal government is far larger than the framers imagined it would be, and the temptations for corruption are corr