Term limits for Congress: Would amending the Constitution 'drain the swamp'?

Major hurdles stand between the proposed constitutional amendment and its ratification, but proponents argue Americans are ready and asking for the overhaul.

J. Scott Applewhite/ AP
Members of the House of Representatives, some joined by family, gather in the House chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017, as the 115th Congress gets under way.

Republican lawmakers aiming to help fulfill President-elect Donald Trump's campaign promise to dislodge Washington insiders have formally proposed a constitutional amendment that would place term limits on members of Congress.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas and Rep. Ron DeSantis (R) of Florida are backing the proposal, which they filed Tuesday, as a way to "drain the swamp" continuously. The resolution would limit House members to three two-year terms and those in the Senate to two six-year terms. Although major hurdles stand between the proposed amendment and its ratification, proponents – including Mr. Trump – argue that Americans are ready and asking for just such an overhaul.

"It is well past time to put an end to the cronyism and deceit that has transformed Washington into a graveyard of good intentions," Senator Cruz said in a statement. "The time is now for Congress, with the overwhelming support of the American people, to submit this constitutional amendment to the states for speedy ratification."

The language of the amendment calls for term limits that are not retroactive, meaning that any term that began before the amendment's ratification would not count toward an individual lawmaker's limit. 

Representative DeSantis noted that the amendment would be a "first step" toward reforming and reviving Capitol Hill.

"Eliminating the political elite and infusing Washington with new blood will restore the citizen legislature that our Founding Fathers envisioned," DeSantis added in the statement.

Six other Republican senators have thrown their weight behind the amendment, as The Hill reported: Deb Fischer of Nebraska, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Mike Lee of Utah, David Perdue of Georgia, and former presidential hopeful Marco Rubio of Florida, who ran against Trump and Cruz in the primary.

Trump has repeatedly called for congressional term limits, both before and after he won the general election, and the limits he proposed on the campaign trail align with the limits in the proposed amendment, as TIME reported.

Supporters of the amendment point to a Rasmussen poll from October in which nearly three-quarters of likely voters, 74 percent, told pollsters that they support congressional term limits. Only 13 percent said they opposed the idea, and just as many said they were undecided.

Rather than signaling widespread support for a particular policy proposal, however, those numbers could simply signal a general sentiment. A month earlier, 60 percent of survey respondents told Rasmussen that they would vote to kick out every single member of Congress if given the opportunity to do so.

Last month, Cruz and DeSantis argued in a Washington Post op-ed that term limits could be a viable tool to counter "the rise of political careerism" in the federal government.

"With term limits," the congressmen wrote, "we will have more frequent changes in leadership and within congressional committees, giving reformers a better chance at overcoming the Beltway inertia that resists attempts to reduce the power of Washington."

But analysts say term limits might not prove as effective as Trump has suggested, as The Christian Science Monitor reported shortly after the election in November.

"It's not the sort of thing that's going to enhance the capacity of the legislature or convince better people to serve in the legislature," Josh Chafetz, a professor of law at Cornell University, told the Monitor. "One question is whether or not there is a 'swamp' there to drain."

"Legislating actually does require an amount of expertise," Mr. Chafetz added. "Basically, what term limits do, is to increase the power of lobbyists." Inexperienced lawmakers tend to rely more heavily on lobbyists to shape legislation. 

Even if the incoming president and key lawmakers backed the amendment, it could face a tough fight to make it to the floor for a vote, since neither House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin nor Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky have indicated support, as The Hill reported. 

"It will not be on the agenda in the Senate," Mr. McConnell told reporters in November. "I would say we have term limits now – they're called elections."

Even if it passes both houses of Congress, the amendment would also need to be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures before taking effect.

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