It is difficult to recount the number of times “term limits” has been used by politicians and the general public as an answer for one problem or another with government.
No fewer than 15 states actually have term limits in place for legislators, and another six had them before being repealed.
At the federal level, most members of Congress who don’t stand for re-election make that choice themselves. There is no way a majority of incumbents would allow a calendar to force them out of office; the proverbial golden handcuffs get in the way. Many attempts have been made, including in the Republican Party’s Contract With America in the 1990s, but all have failed.
Only the president is limited to two terms in the Oval Office, as outlined in the 22nd Amendment. That change in the Constitution was proposed a mere two years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office — during his fourth term.
Proponents of term-limiting those in the Senate and House of Representatives believe career politicians become too focused on themselves and not doing the work of the people. Opponents claim that elections themselves are the best tool for removing bad people from office, and limits would remove too many good people.
Regardless of one’s views on the matter, it does seem most everybody has an opinion. Given all the minutia the Founding Fathers waded through on their way to penning the Constitution of the United States, term limits are rather conspicuous in their absence.
Many an article deals with qualifications for various federal offices. Most of the prerequisites are about how old somebody must be. Representatives must be at least 25. Senators must be at least 30. Presidents must be at least 35. Justices of the Supreme Court and the inferior courts don’t have an age requirement, but there likely was a presumption the judges had gone to law school and practiced as an attorney before being considered. That would put them somewhere in the vicinity of 30.
The ages seem rather young by today’s standards. But in 1787, the average life expectancy for Americans was approximately 36. By the time one obtained federal office during the nation’s infancy, by rights one could be considered an elder of the community. Even judges with lifetime appointments weren’t going to be around that long.
Life expectancy has done nothing but increase since that time. Today’s average U.S. citizen is 79 before they die, which potentially allows many decades of service from the same individual.
We don’t believe the Constitution’s authors would have imagined life expectancy more than doubling, much like nobody alive today can imagine growing to the ripe old age of 185 somewhere in the future.
There is an imbalance that needs correcting — and we don’t believe term limits are the answer. We want those in office to have the benefit and wisdom that comes from being an elder. As such, we would recommend amending the Constitution to update the age requirements.
Adjusting for longer lifetimes, the new minimum age for the House would be 55. Senators would need to be at least 66, and presidents would need to be 77. It’s simple mathematics, and would be in line with the original intent of the Founders.
The only radical change needed would be for federal judges. A reasonable age would be in line with at least the senators, perhaps even the president.
In order to gain the support of current office-holders, we would consider seriously a grandfather clause. And let’s put the notion of term limits to rest.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry