Term limits are undemocratic. If citizens don’t want an elected official in office, they should have the good sense, and nerve, to vote him out. That’s how it is supposed to work.

But a senator serving 40 years in office causes even the most resistant to re-evaluate the virtue and necessity of term limits. Incumbents have huge structural advantages in elections, including name recognition, good will, fundraising ability and seniority. What many incumbents lack, though, is the good sense to not run when the time has come. Like after 40 years of service (cough, Sen. Hatch, cough) at the age of 83.

Senator Orrin Hatch ca. 1976. Credit: The Salt Lake Tribune Library
Senator Orrin Hatch ca. 1976. Credit: The Salt Lake Tribune Library

The national advocacy group U.S. Term Limits agrees. It has opened an office in Utah to encourage Utahns to support term limits for members of Congress. The local director of the bipartisan group points to Sen. Orrin Hatch as the group’s motivation in Utah.

Their idea, which would require a constitutional amendment, is a limit of three two-year terms in the House and/or two six-year terms in the Senate. 

The time for congressional term limits has come. If it’s good enough for the presidency, it’s good enough for Congress. (Of course term limits wouldn’t address the entrenched, permanent bureaucracy, but that’s another issue.)

Early American practice followed the tradition and example of George Washington, who voluntarily retired after his second term. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to the first of four terms as president. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage shortly after his fourth inauguration.

Two years later, Republicans in Congress approved a resolution proposing a constitutional amendment to limit presidents to two terms in office, and the states ratified the 22nd Amendment in 1951.

Rules already exist to limit public service. There are age requirements, citizenship requirements, residency requirements and, for offices such as attorneys general, education requirements.

In the last 20 years, especially, Congress has been slow to act and slow to respond. When compared to the leviathan executive power, such impotence is disastrous to the function of divided government. Instead of focusing on legislating, individual senators and representatives are focused on keeping their jobs. And to keep their jobs, they need to raise money, curry favor and promote special interests. They take years to qualify for coveted committee leadership positions, and once those positions of power are secured, they are hard to give up.

Representatives and senators free from focusing on the next election, or the need to preserve a lifetime career, would be more independent, and more bold, with their voting decisions.

And then, perhaps, Congress could get something done.