How come no one's talking about term limits? #askmpr

Barack Obama
File photo: President Barack Obama arrives at the ceremonial swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool File 2013

During the run-up to the Nov. 8 Election Day, MPR News is finding answers to your election questions. Pose yours here.

Mark Rancone of St. Paul, asks:

Given the country's disillusion with Washington, why haven't term limits been more of a topic?

The Constitution does limit the president to two consecutive four-year terms, but that's the only restriction for federally elected officials.

Congress might seem ripe for similar term limits — nearly 80 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Congress does its job, yet most congressional incumbents get re-elected.

The average length of service for House members at the start of the last Congress was 9.1 years, (4.6 terms); for senators the average was 10.2 years (1.7 terms), according to the Congressional Research Service.

So why are there curbs only on the president?

"The president is sort of institutionally the closest thing we'd have to resembling a monarch or a king," said Kjersten Nelson, associate professor of political science at North Dakota State University.

"Congressionally, there's sort have been ebbs and flows in public interest of implementing term limits," she added. "The place where this has had the most staying power is in state legislatures. They do have the power to put those (term limits) in place for their state legislators and governors."

However, there hasn't been a significant push for federal limits since the 1990s, said Ken Rudin, a former political writer for NPR who hosts the weekly "Political Junkie" broadcast.

In 1994, a group of reformers, mostly Republicans, pushed for term limits on members of the House and Senate.

Several states voted for congressional term limits, but in 1995 the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to impose limits on members of the United States Senate or House of Representatives.

So if change happens, it is the result of voters selecting a new candidate on Election Day, although that doesn't always happen.

Rudin noted the case of New York U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel who was "reprimanded by the House for ethics violations and he kept winning. In fact, he just retired, he's retiring this year but he was first elected in 1970."

So why aren't term limits a bigger topic of discussion?

Nelson says it could be that voters don't feel particularly disillusioned by their own representative but by Congress in general. They may also see the value in keeping someone in place who delivers for the district.

"There are advantages for constituents with their member of Congress gaining seniority," said Nelson. "More powerful positions or leadership positions that they can get in the legislative body."

However, that power also means that it is harder for new office hopefuls to have a chance at usurping a representative that, if not always well-liked, is at least familiar. "People love stability," said Nelson.

And once a representative is voted in, the promise of keeping their seat is historically stable. That doesn't mean change in government is impossible, it's just comes back to voters to make that change.

Voters have been more willing in recent election cycles to boot out incumbents, said Rudin, adding, "Used cars salesmen are above members of Congress in support the American people have."

Still, Nelson said a lack of competition for the seats means a lot of the same faces being elected year after year.

"A lot of our congressional districts are not very competitive, so it's possible that it means that people that live in those districts are even going to be happier with their incumbents," she said.

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