Cowley: US Congress Members Need Term Limits


Sen. Mike Lee (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

By Elle Cowley, Opinion Writer, Audio Producer


Up until recently, Sen. Mike Lee vocally supported imposing term limits on senators. He even promised to co-sponsor legislation that would have put a two term limit on senators — that was, until he announced that he would run for a third term in Congress.

Members of the Senate advocate frequently for term limits and begin the process of introducing legislation until it impacts their ability to continue running for public office. Just as the president has term limits, members of the Senate and the House should only be able to serve two terms in Congress.

At present, a member of the Senate or House of Representatives can serve an unlimited amount of time in congress. Members of the Senate serve for six years each term, while members of the House serve terms of two years each. Because there’s no limit on how many times someone can run for office in the legislative branch, Congress has stagnated. Incumbent members of Congress rarely lose their seats to their opponents. The incumbency rate in the senate is always around 90% after each election cycle, keeping the same people in Congress for years. In 2020, 96% of congressional incumbents retained their seats. Unless an incumbent voluntarily decides to step down from their position, the chances of a new person winning an election against an incumbent are slim.

Because incumbents can essentially stay in Congress for however long they please after election, it’s common for members of congress to stay in their seats for extended periods of time. The longest ever serving senator remained in his seat for 51 years, from 1959 to 2010. One person shouldn’t serve in congress for such a long period of time.

Senators seldom consider legislation that would create limits for how long they can serve. For years, Sen. Lee advocated for term limits in the senate, but as his second term drew to a close, he began to go back on his support of term limits. He did not cosign the latest iteration of term limit legislation, even though he has in the past. Sen. Lee’s hypocrisy may actually work against him in securing his third term, as his current approval rating is 45%.

Every time legislation has been introduced to impose term limits on Congressional members, it never makes it past the introductory phase. Last year, Sen. Ted Cruz proposed a senate joint resolution to create a two-term limit for senators and a three-term limit for members of the house. There has been no further action since its introduction. The most recent Senate joint resolution is another unsuccessful attempt to create term limits. Even though many members of Congress have cosigned these pieces of legislation, they rarely get passed.

With such a high incumbency retention rate, new ideas and voices rarely make it into the legislative branch. As of October 2021, the Congressional approval rate was 22%. The United States is unhappy with its Congress, and will continue to be if nothing changes. Congress in its current state is outdated, with many of the same members it had 20 years ago.

Even though white men make up a mere 30% of the U.S. population, they make up a staggering 67% of all U.S. Senators. Right now, our congress does not represent the people it governs. More diverse perspectives and new voices are more adequately equipped to address the problems we currently face as a nation than the current incumbents.

The lack of term limits actively slows progress in our legislative branch. Our country needs new faces and new ideas in government to better serve its people. It’s clear that the current system favors incumbents, who often refuse to stop running until late into their careers. As Sen. Lee has shown many senators are all for limits until the limits would directly affect their ability to stay in power.  The people of the U.S. deserve a congress that represents them. Imposing term limits on members of the legislative branch is a step forward to achieving that goal.


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