Congressional term limits: Light from the 22nd Amendment

The debate surrounding proposals for term limits on members of Congress would benefit from a reminder of the reasoning behind the 22nd Amendment, which imposed a two-term limit on the presidency. That Amendment, ratified in 1951, is now 70 years old. Although small pockets of voices advocating its repeal can be heard from time to time, polls show that Americans, with good reason, believe strongly in the merits of that fundamental change in the Constitution.


Constitutional history can be a useful guide in a nation’s decision-making process. This is especially true when the reasoning, motives and arguments advocating constitutional change in our time closely resemble the reasoning, motives and arguments advocating constitutional change in an earlier time. The same assertions and circumstances that convinced the American people to amend the Constitution in favor of term limits for the presidency, might persuade the citizenry to amend it for the purpose of limiting the number of terms that people may serve in the House and the Senate. In any case, the debate about congressional term limits will be better informed by the experience of the 22ndAmendment.


The 22nd Amendment states that “no person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice,” or more than once if that person has occupied the office for more than two years of a term to which someone else was elected, but unable to complete because of death or disability.


The Amendment essentially codified what had become a two-term tradition, initiated by George Washington, who refused to seek a third term because, as he stated, “an elective monarchy is not why we fought the revolution.” Thomas Jefferson, who favored a practice of rotation in office, as a virtue of republicanism, similarly rejected a third term, as did James Madison and James Monroe. The practice of these founding presidents helped to forge an unwritten tradition of a two-term limit on the office, one that Theodore Roosevelt called a “wise custom.”


Theodore Roosevelt’s cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, broke the roughly 150 year-old tradition. In1940, as war clouds loomed over Europe, FDR ran for and was elected to a third term. In 1944, riding a campaign war theme which asserted that a nation ought not to change horses in mid-stream, he sought and won a fourth term. Roosevelt’s death, just five months into his final term in office, prompted another in a flurry of proposed amendments to limit tenure in the nation’s highest office. In March of 1947, Congress easily passed a proposed amendment to limit presidential re-eligibility, an idea that was, in fact, introduced, but defeated, in the Constitutional Convention.


In early 1951, 41states had ratified the proposed amendment within four years, satisfying the constitutional requirement of approval by three-fourths of the states, and the22nd Amendment was thus firmly entrenched in the Constitution. This significant constitutional change reflected a number of factors, including historical and political circumstances.


At that juncture in history, the specter of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini, and other fascist leaders, filled Americans, indeed, citizens across the globe, with deep fears about the likelihood of the aggrandizement of power by executives who held office for too many years. The abuse of power, corruption and tyranny were no longer figments of imagination, but rather raw reality.


Broad support for the22nd Amendment rested on an array of concerns. Many Americans believed that unlimited tenure degenerated into a sense of inheritance and entitlement. Such corruption, obviously, would increase the detachment and arrogance of the chief executive and, in turn, diminish his own sense of accountability to the law and the citizenry. Such a president might think of himself less as an agent of the people, but in fact, indispensable and, in a vain glorious way, as a savior of the nation. Constitutional limits, checks and balances and other means of restraining the president would have little utility.


In addition, borrowing from the advocacy of the inestimable founding presidents—Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe—the principle of rotation in office was considered healthy, and even vital, to the cause of republicanism. Rotation helps to prevent stagnation in office. Political parties, moreover, are rejuvenated by the process of recruiting, grooming and nominating new candidates. New leaders promote the dynamism of the electoral system. Above all, Americans rejected the premise of indispensability, as they had rejected the premise of human infallibility. In a nation as populous as the United States, it was believed ,there is plenty of talent from which to draw in selecting new policymakers.


None of these arguments denied that some citizens, more than others, bring to the presidency valuable vision, judgment, leadership traits and the sort of character that voters admire in the chief executive. However, by the mid-20th Century, Americans had seen in the tenure of tyrants the tragedies of the abuse of power, the arrogance of power and the long-term consequences of delusions of indispensability. Finally, advocates of the 22nd Amendment believed that particularly valuable former presidents should be consulted by successors on matters of foreign and domestic affairs.


Those who wonder about the relative merits of term limits for members of Congress would do well to consider the reasons and rationales that spurred passage of term limits for the presidency. Are they relevant? If not, why not?