Persistent public support for term limits ignores Ronald Reagan’s wisdom on the subject

A recent Gallup poll shows wide and strong  public support for term limits for members of Congress — a sentiment attributable in part, no doubt, to the unprecedentedly  low level of esteem in which federal lawmakers currently are held by their fellow Americans.

But term limits are a terrible idea, as I’ve argued here on several occasions. And on most of those occasions, I’ve invoked the words of Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of modern Republican conservatism (at least he was before the GOP went completely bonkers in recent years).

In his presidential farewell address in 1989, Reagan rightly argued that terms limits are “a preemption of the people’s right to vote for whomever they want as many times as they want.”

Granted, Reagan was talking in favor of repeal of the 22nd Amendment, which imposes term limits on presidents, but the principle he articulated logically applies to all elected officials. And it’s amazing that more Americans don’t recognize that  simple principle:

Legislation or a constitutional amendment that imposes term limits at any level of government would merely diminish the political power of ordinary voters.

Besides, in a sense, we already have term limits. They’re called “elections.” We can invoke them to limit the terms of public officials whenever we want — or not limit the terms, if we so choose. Why would we saddle voters with an arbitrary barrier to their re-electing officials they want to re-elect? After all, unpopular incumbents never get re-elected anyway. The absence of term limits doesn’t force us to re-elect people we don’t want to re-elect.

Term limits also amount to breaking faith with the nation’s Founding Fathers. The drafting of our Constitution was born of an effort to correct the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation. And the architects of the Constitution specifically omitted term limits, despite their having been included in the Articles.

There are numerous other reasons why term limits are undesirable. They would eliminate the good politicians along with the bad. They would enhance the power of bureaucrats, staffers and lobbyists. They would result in a costly loss of knowledge and experience in government.

But none of that likely matters to the crowd to whom the recent political squabbles in Washington seem to be a good reason to throw the rascals out.

Oh, well, at least the rest of us can take solace in the fact that only a constitutional amendment, rather than simple legislation, can impose term limits on Congress. Constitutional amendments are not so easily adopted, and the lengthy process might give us time to resurrect Ronald Reagan’s argument against such nonsense.



  1. Pat, once I completely agree with you.

    Term limits are a way for others to make me not choose who I want. I would love term limits on Leading Democrats in Congress right now, and currently love the 22nd amendment. But a majority of people in Nancy Polosi’s district like her and the same for Harry Reid. When it boils down you should have the right to elect who you want and it is only the voters fault for electing the people that represent them.

  2. My rebuttal to this arguments as well as the ones that Orrin Hatch made in 1995 that were cited in this article without attribution.

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