Congressional Term Limits: A Balance on a Check?

In this week’s blog post, we will explore an idea that is gaining some traction in the United States: term limits for members of Congress.

New Kids on The Very, Very Old Block

After attending orientation classes (yes, those are a thing) and being sworn in, freshman representatives and senators will take their seats next to members that include Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Representative Don Young, R-Alaska, who have served in Congress for 44 and 46 years, respectively. For those doing the math, Senator Leahy is currently serving his eighth term in the Senate and Representative Young just won his 23rd term [1]. Yet neither member touches retired Representative John Dingell’s, D-Mich., record 59 years and 21 days in the House, standing for election no less than 30 times.

Since 1964, incumbent senators typically have an 80 percent chance of being reelected; representatives average closer to 95 percent [2]. There are a number of factors that account for the incumbent advantage. Incumbents usually have more name recognition, more campaign money, and a congressional record to point to. With those factors in place, the most likely reason a member of Congress is not reelected is either retirement or death (although that isn’t always a deal-breaker; see Mel Carnahan in 2000 [3]).

The prevalence of career legislators has led some to question whether or not the absence of term limits in the House and Senate is at odds with Congress’ role as a truly representative body. Besides, we’ve limited the terms of presidents, so why not do the same for members of Congress?

The biggest obstacle to implementing Congressional term limits is the Constitution itself. The only term limit that has been imposed has been on the presidency through the 22nd Amendment. Therefore, a precedent has been established that another amendment would be required to impose term limits on representatives and/or senators. The process of passing a constitutional amendment is arduous to say the least, but the most fundamental obstacle would be that Congress itself has to approve it. In a legislature dominated by career legislators, it is unlikely they would vote to limit themselves.

Amendments Aside, What Are the Arguments?

Those in favor of term limits argue that we should impose them on members of Congress for the very same reason we impose them on the president: to create a check on power. Congresspeople wield tremendous power and influence. They are the only 535 citizens (out of 320 million) who actually get to vote on our laws. They shape government policy, create budgets, confirm presidential appointments, and declare war. Yet holding power for lengthy periods makes members of Congress less like elected representatives and more like a political aristocracy—one that is secluded in a “Washington Bubble.” Some Americans feel that by spending so much time in Congress, members become detached from their constituents. And when they can take their reelection for granted, members are less inclined to represent their constituents’ interests. Some also argue that when a member of Congress has been in office longer than most of his or her constituents have been alive, that member is out of touch with the needs and changing sensibilities of his or her district.

So the logic seems pretty sound there. Are there any arguments for keeping things as they are? Well, yes.

Others believe that the absence of term limits protects the power of the legislative branch as a check on the executive branch. Take Representative Young and Senator Leahy, for example. Both have been in power since Watergate and have seen eight presidents come and go during their tenure. Without term limits, they are able to legislate beyond the scope of one administration. Furthermore, the responsibilities of a member can be enormously complicated. It can take years to forge relationships and master the rules that govern Congress.

Others caution against the creation of a lame-duck Congress. A “lame-duck” describes an elected official who has not been reelected but is serving out the remainder of his or her term. This period is sometimes seen as problematic, as those who will remain in power beyond the lame-duck period are less likely to work with lame-ducks on new policies since they’ll soon be dealing with replacements who may want different things. As it stands, there are 30 lame-duck representatives and a handful of lame-duck senators for the next two months. With term limits, there could be hundreds of lame-duck members for years at a time.

Discussion Questions

  1. Should members of Congress be subject to term limits? How many terms should they be allowed to run for?
  2. Do you think the incumbent advantage presents a problem for true representation in Congress? Would term limits solve this problem? What other changes might make races more competitive?
  3. Currently, the Constitution requires representatives to be at least 25 years old and senators to be at least 30. Rather than enacting term limits, some have suggested imposing a mandatory retirement age for members of Congress or a maximum age of election. Do you agree with this? Does this idea present problems of its own?
  4. The 22nd Amendment prohibits the president from serving more than two full four-year terms, even non-consecutively. Some have argued that the absence of a limit on consecutive terms for members of Congress is the true problem with the system. They suggest that members of Congress be allowed to serve unlimited terms, but that after a number of consecutive terms, they be required to stand down for at least one term. For example, a senator could run for two consecutive six-year terms, be required to stand down, and then run again six years later. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages to this suggestion?


Image credit: Political Cartoon by Gary Varvel,
[1] Estepa, Jessica. “Alaska’s Don Young to Become Most Senior Member of Congress After Conyers’ Retirement.” USA Today. 5 Dec. 2017. Web. 26 Nov. 2018.
[2] “Reelection Rates Over the Years.” Web. 26 Nov. 2018.
[3] Balz, Dan, and Mike Allen. “Mo. Gov. Killed in Plane Crash.” Washington Post. 17 Oct. 2000. Web. 26 Nov. 2018.


Making Sense of Election Results, Part 2

In this post, we will take a look at some important issues that voters weighed in on in last week’s election. Our previous post examined the shift in the national political landscape, especially the change of power in the House of Representatives. This post will take a look at ballot initiatives across the country.

For a full list of ballot measures in your state, check out this list from the National Conference of State Legislatures.


Three states considered ballot initiatives to restrict access to abortion. Voters in Oregon voted against an initiative that would have banned the use of public funding for abortion. Alabama and West Virginia both passed “sweeping anti-abortion language to the states’ constitution, proclaiming that women have no right to perform the procedure,” according to Axios.

Animal Rights

California passed Proposition 12, which requires that all eggs sold in the state come from cage-free hens by 2022. The proposition also calls for larger pens for breeding pigs and for calves raised for veal. This is a good article for teachers looking to help their students discuss the pros and cons of the proposition and its likely impact on issues related to animal cruelty and ethical farming.

Florida also passed bans on dog racing and betting on dog racing.

Criminal Justice, Civil Rights, and Constitutional Law

Alabama voters approved a constitutional amendment that allows for the display of the Ten Commandments in public spaces.

Colorado’s Amendment A put an end to forced, unpaid labor for criminals.

Most prominently, Florida voters passed Amendment 4 to restore voting rights to over one million felons.

One of the more controversial proposals to be adopted through ballot measure in this election was Marsy’s Law, a measure designed to empower victims in the criminal prosecution process. From Vox: “During Tuesday’s midterm elections, voters in Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Nevada, North Carolina, and Oklahoma approved a controversial ballot measure known as Marsy’s Law—writing what’s effectively a crime victim bill of rights into their state laws.”

The Vox article above provides valuable background on Marsy’s Law. For a strong statement against the proposal, here is the ACLU’s take on the issue; for a statement from the lead organization supporting the proposal, visit the website of Marsy’s Law for All.

Elections and Voting

Several states made major changes to voting and elections laws, including laws and processes related to redistricting and voter registration. This NPR article gives a good rundown of the outcomes.

Energy and the Environment

States considered an array of proposals regarding energy and environmental policy, including initiatives that dealt with renewable energy, clean air and water regulations, and fracking. Environmental protections did not get much public support. Two articles, one from the Washington Post and one from Vox, detail the policy proposals and the outcomes in each case.

Discussion Questions

  1. Were there any significant ballot measures in your state? Do you remember seeing any campaign ads about them?
  2. How would you have voted on some of the ballot measures described above?
  3. Are there any that you would like to see adopted in your state? Why?
  4. Which of these ballot measures do you think is most important? Why?

Optional Extension

Have students use NCSL’s Statewide Ballot Measures Database to investigate ballot measures that were either considered in your state or have to do with issues that your students care about. Have them investigate who supported the measures, who opposed the measures, and how much money was spent on advertising and campaigning.


Image credit: NPR Illinois


Making Sense of Election Results, Part 1

Source: BBC

Tuesday’s election strengthened the Republican majority in the Senate, but it is likely that the most significant outcome at the national level is Democrats’ new majority in the House of Representatives. In this post, we will explore some of the trends and data from the midterms as well as some of the implications of divided government and Democrats’ control of the House. In the next post, we will look at some of the ramifications at the state and local levels.


There will be a record number of female representatives in the next Congress.

A diverse group of women won elections across the country. According The Cook Political Report, there will be more than 100 women in the House once all of the election results come in. This article from The Guardian describes many of the new faces in Congress, including two Muslim women and two American Indian women.

Source: National Public Radio


High voter turnout set records.

Voter turnout for the midterms set a 50-year high, indicating a high level of energy, engagement, and anxiety. Exit polls and other polling indicate that most voters viewed the election as a referendum on President Donald Trump’s time in office, and Democrats led the national popular vote over Republicans by a margin of seven percent.

Turnout among young voters also hit high levels, and young people largely supported Democrats by a two-to-one margin, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).

Source: CIRCLE


Democrats gain control of the House.

This CBS News article explores the ways that Democrats might try to slow down President Trump’s agenda, especially as it relates to immigration and tax cuts. Various House committees may also begin to use subpoenas to investigate the Trump administration and campaign and any ties to Russia, the president’s finances, and other issues. As far as legislative issues, this New York Times article says that Democrats will seek to strengthen campaign and ethics laws, protect health care, and push for infrastructure spending. This Vox article gives a more detailed account of what the Democrat-controlled House may try to accomplish in relation to health care.


Questions to For Student Discussion

  • What is your reaction to the election results?
  • Why do you think voter turnout was so high? What about turnout among young people?
  • What do you think of the Democrats’ likely goals?
    • Do you think Congress should spend more time investigating the president?
    • Do you think that Democrats’ legislative priorities (health care, campaign and ethics regulations, infrastructure spending) are the correct ones?
  • What else would you like to see the new Congress do?


Additional Resources


Image Credit: Dave Grandlund, from


A Rumble in the House—What Are the Odds of Republicans Maintaining the Majority?

What’s Up?

  • The members of the House of Representatives represent citizens on the basis of population. Representatives (who are elected to two-year terms) have many duties, but their most important ones are to make and pass federal laws by introducing bills and resolutions, offering amendments, serving on committees, and voting to represent their constituents.
  • Tomorrow, November 6, is Election Day. All 435 seats in the House are up for grabs. The winners will be sworn in to serve in the 116th Congress in early January 2019.
  • Republicans currently hold the majority in the House with 235 seats. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is not seeking reelection.
  • Democrats hold 193 seats in the House. Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is the current minority leader.
  • Seven seats are vacant (due to a member’s death or resignation) going into the election.
  • To secure the House majority, a party must win 218 seats.
  • A rumble in the house: to take over the House majority, Democrats will need to gain 23 new seats.
Source: FiveThirtyEight


The Current Situation: 

  • Many polls are suggesting that Democrats will take over the House majority.
  • According to FiveThirtyEight’s aggregated poll data, there is an 85.4 percent chance that the Democrats will win the House majority in the midterms.


Why Might That Be?  

  • Open seats are typically more likely to flip. Incumbents are traditionally difficult to beat, so losing incumbents makes seats vulnerable for that party.
  • There are 55 House members who are not seeking reelection in 2018, leaving their seats open for the taking.
  • Republicans held 37 of those newly opened seats; eight of those seats are in districts that voted for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016.
  • Eighteen of those members not running for reelection are Democrats, but only four of them are in districts won by President Donald Trump in 2016.
  • An additional nine members of the House will leave their seats open due to early resignation. Seven of those members are Republicans, only two are Democrats.
  • History is not on Republicans’ side. According to The American Presidency Project, since 1934, the party of a newly elected president has suffered an average loss of 23 seats in the House in the following midterm election. This is the exact number of seats Democrats need to flip to become the majority.
  • Republicans are defending 25 seats in districts captured by Secretary Clinton in 2016. Democrats are defending 13 seats in districts that went for President Trump.
  • Democrats are leading in the polls for a generic ballot.

    Source: FiveThirtyEight


Why Do We Care? 

  • The speaker of the House is an important role in the U.S. political system. The speaker, who is elected by the House (and, thus, typically a member of the majority), acts as the leader of the House and presides over the floor. The speaker is second in line to succeed the president, after the vice president.
  • Committee assignments are important for each member’s legislative agenda; party leaders organize and shape the composition of the committees. The House has 20 standing committees that have different jurisdictions. These committees consider bills and then recommend measures for the House to consider.
  • Before members are assigned to committees, each committee’s size and proportion of Republicans to Democrats must be decided. The number of committee slots given to each party is about the same as the ratio between the majority party and the minority party in the full chamber.
  • Each committee has a chair (a member of the majority party). The chair heads the full committee and has considerable power over what pieces of legislation or issues the committee considers.
  • The Rules Committee controls which bills go to the House floor and the terms of debate. The makeup of the Rules Committee has traditionally been weighted in favor of the majority party and has been in its current configuration of nine majority members and four minority members since the late 1970s.


What Are the Polls Saying About the Various Races?(Source: The Cook Political Report)

Definitions to know:

Source: New York Times/The Cook Political Report
  • Likely: This race is not considered competitive at this point but it has the potential to become engaged.
  • Leaning: This is a competitive race, but one party has an advantage.
  • Highly competitive: This race is a toss-up or is leaning slightly toward one party.
  • Toss-Up: This is one of the most competitive races; either party has a good chance of winning.

What are the polls showing?

  • Polls are showing more seats solidly held by Democrats.
  • There are 183 seats anticipated to be solidly Democrat; 140 seats are polling as solidly Republican.
  • There are 11 additional seats polling as likely Democrat; 28 additional seats are likely Republican.
  • There are 29 races leaning Republican; only one of these seats is currently held by a Democrat.
  • There are 15 races leaning Democrat; 13 of these seats are currently Republican.
  • There are 73 races polling as highly competitive; 69 of these seats are currently held by Republicans.
  • There are 29 races polling as toss-ups; 28 of these seats are currently held by Republicans.

What are these polls telling us?

  • Republicans seem to have an uphill battle to fight on November 6. There are 69 Republican seats that are considered a toss-up or leaning. So to maintain control of the House, Republicans must win 90 percent or more of their highly competitive races.


Specific Races to Watch on Tuesday: 

According to a New York Times analysis of The Cook Political Report, the toss-up races are:

State-District Republican currently holding the seat*Open means the current representative will not run for reelection.
CA-10 Denham
CA-25 Knight
CA-39 Open (Royce)
CA-45 Walters
CA-48 Rohrabacher
FL-15 Open (Ross)
FL-26 Curbelo
IL-14 Hultgren
IA-03 Young
KS-02 Open (Jenkins)
KY-06 Barr
ME-02 Poliquin
MI-08 Bishop
MN-01 Open (Walz)
NJ-03 MacArthur
NJ-07 Lance
NM-02 Open (Pearce)
NY-19 Faso
NY-22 Tenney
NC-09 Open (Pittenger)
NC-13 Budd
OH-12 Balderson
PA-01 Fitzpatrick
TX-07 Culberson
TX-32 Sessions
UT-04 Love
VA-02 Taylor
VA-07 Brat
WA-08 Open (Reichert)


Resources for Further Exploration:


Let’s Discuss

  • Given what we know about how the House functions, why is one party holding the majority important?
  • Moving into the future, what specific impact may result if Republicans remain in the majority?
  • What about the impact if Democrats move into the majority position?
  • What specific issues or areas of legislation may be particularly impacted by the majority being in the hands of Republicans or Democrats?