When we said that an authority conferred by the free suffrages of the people never harmed a republic, we presupposed that the people, in giving that power, would limit, as well the time during which it was to be exercised. – Niccoló Machiavelli, “The Discourses,”. 1517.
Ronald Reagan famously said that “the nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth is a government program.” In the same vein, he might have said that the nearest thing to lifetime employment we will ever see on this earth is a seat in the U.S. Congress.
Since 1964, the incumbency rate has averaged 93% in the House of Representatives and 82% in the Senate, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Low approval ratings are clearly no obstacle to re-election.
Anyone watching the bi-party obstructionism and hypocrisy in Washington these days would surely conclude that it’s time to clean house. To the extent that the 2016 presidential election reflected a populist rejection of the status quo, what institution better encapsulates “more of the same” than Congress?
Donald Trump came out in favor of term limits during the 2016 presidential election campaign.
“If I’m elected president, I will push for a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress,” Trump said at a campaign rally in Colorado in October. He subsequently quantified those limits: six years in the House and 12 years in the Senate. If such a law were applied to the current Congress, almost half the sitting members would be out of a job.
House Speaker Paul Ryan has pledged to bring term limits to the floor for a vote. Even if he does, no one expects lawmakers to vote themselves out of a secure job that comes with generous benefits, including health care and a pension (five years of service required to qualify), and minimal demands on one’s time. The House has logged an average of 139 days in session a year since 2001.