The concept of term limits for members of Congress is as old as the Republic. In fact, the idea is as old as any republic. The ancient Greeks and Romans both featured some form of term limits for their elected officials, to guarantee rotation in office and to curb corruption.
Even before American independence, several of the colonies imposed terms limits. The Articles of Confederation featured term limits for delegates to the Continental Congress.
The U.S. Constitution omitted mandatory term limits, largely because delegates thought they were too specific for a general document, but they also wondered if there was any reason for limits given the common perception that no good citizen would seek long tenure in office.
For most of our early history, term limits were observed without the necessity of statutory or constitutional mandates. In the late 19th century, however, a variety of factors began an era of long-term incumbency. By the middle of the 20th century, the “permanent class” in Washington, D.C., had fully emerged. Congressional tenures rivaled the lifetime appointments of federal judges.
By the late 20th century, a system of incumbent protections led to re-election rates coming close to 100 percent. Former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards famously summed up the only way to lose as being “caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.”
As a result, a popular movement developed, seeking to “drain the swamp” through term limits. Significant support for term limits spiked when there were scandals in Congress or when elections produced little or no turnover.
In the early 1990s, in the wake of the House banking scandal and loss-proof congressional elections, term limit support was at an all-time high. Voters in several states approved term limits by overwhelming numbers. A congressional vote on term limits received a majority, but not the two-thirds required. The U.S. Supreme Court dealt setbacks to the state-initiated efforts to provide congressional term limits.
The movement lost its momentum in Washington, but not its support among the electorate. Polls still show that voters, by wide margins, support term limits.
Yet one of the major forces driving the term limits movement — the lack of rotation in office — is not what it used to be. It’s not defeat at the polls that’s driving this shift, though, it’s retirements and resignations.
Early in the 2018 cycle, there have been more than 50 retirement announcements, significantly eclipsing recent mid-term levels. We haven’t seen this many retirements this early. The closest we’ve gotten was in 1978, mid-term of Jimmy Carter’s disastrous presidency, and again in 1994, the mid-term that produced the “Contract with America” sweep.
Retirements and resignations significantly alter the political landscape. They create “open” seats, which are more difficult to defend by the party that held them. They also dramatically change the seniority rankings and the political power that flows from them.
Pennsylvania, my home state, is a good case study. By April Fool’s Day we had one congressman resign and six more announce they are not seeking re-election. That’s more than one-third of our entire delegation.
Never before have so many Pennsylvania members of Congress voluntarily left at the same time. With them go some powerful assignments. Bill ShusterWilliam (Bill) Franklin ShusterLobbying firm cuts ties to Trent Lott amid national anti-racism protests Ex-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm Ex-Rep. Duffy to join lobbying firm BGR MORE is chairman of the House Transportation Committee. Charlie DentCharles (Charlie) Wieder DentThe Memo: Never Trumpers sink into gloom as Gonzalez bows out The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? Influential Republicans threaten to form new party MORE chairs an important subcommittee on military construction and veterans affairs. On the minority side, Bob BradyRobert (Bob) A. BradyIt's time to defund the Saudi-led coalition's war in Yemen Philadelphia Dem power broker indicted Americans connect with government at the library – so fix the Federal Depository Library Program MORE is the ranking member on House Administration.
Collectively, Pennsylvania’s retiring or resigned members have nearly a century of service. That’s a lot to lose, especially because the state has seen its congressional delegation cut in half (from 36 to 18) over the last three generations and is faced with the prospect of losing another seat after the 2020 census. Considering that there are a dozen states with combined representation in the House of less than 18, it’s a staggering loss.
The open seats that are created undoubtedly will be hotly contested. Adding to the upheaval in the Keystone State is the seismic shift of seats created by new districts drawn by the state’s Supreme Court a few weeks ago. Some Pennsylvania prognosticators have said it’s possible that half the congressional delegation will be new in January.
All of this creates an additional challenge for Republicans in their quest to hold on to a relatively slim majority in the House. It also gives some credence to the principle argument against mandatory term limits — that there already are term limits via the ballot box.
It shouldn’t take retirements to create the competitive elections that the Founders of our nation wanted. In 2018, though, it looks like they will.
Charlie Gerow, CEO of Quantum Communications and one of Pennsylvania’s most influential Republicans, is a nationally recognized leader in strategic communications and trusted advisor to leaders in government and business.