Lecture Content

Lecture Content

Learning Unit 4

Congressional Term Limits

The idea of congressional term limits has become a resounding cry in American politics. Amid hyper- partisanship and the resulting political gridlock, many have pointed to congressional term limits as the cure-all for the ills of government stalemate. What would be the net gains and losses for the American people under such a system? To answer this question, it is important to weigh the practical judgement of the Framers on this matter. 1

Job Satisfaction

Looking at Federalist No. 72 , Alexander Hamilton (1788) argued that people take more interest in their jobs with knowledge that in doing so, they will be rewarded. So, if members of Congress recognize that they must leave office at a designated time, they are, then, less apt to take their jobs seriously. 46 Thus, in the interest of the electorate, congressional term limits were purposefully nixed in favor of a working body of legislators whose reelection would serve as the impetus for both public approval and personal fulfillment. 1


Hamilton (1788) opined that term limits entice politicians toward corruption. With an understanding that they will ultimately be stripped of their positions, congressmen are likely to be swayed in the direction of bribery and other forms of fraud. 46 This argument is, perhaps, the most ineffective of Hamilton’s reasoning. Historically, congressional term limits have not prevented instances of corruption. From the Credit Mobilier scandal of 1867 to the likes of Jack Abramoff in 2005, Congress has had its fair share of deceit in spite of the stability of unlimited terms. 1

A “Rookie” Congress

Hamilton (1788) maintained that “experience is the parent of wisdom.” 46 As such, congressional term limits present as an extreme challenge to a skilled body of legislators. Without much needed political know-how, the community at large is at a severe disadvantage in terms of political tradeoffs between government institutions and the public. 1

Crisis Leadership

Another negative effect of term limits comes in the form of crisis leadership. National catastrophes are not only common, but, likewise, inevitable. 46 Thus, there is a need for capable management to handle such setbacks. The reelection of Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 drives home Hamilton’s point here. Elected just after the breakout of World War II, FDR’s continued presence maintained constancy during a time when the nation was set afloat by a second world war. Would it have been wise to limit his eligibility to continue as president at such a critical time? The short answer is no, and the same rationale can, likewise, be applied to members of Congress.


The Constitution of 1788 can be summed up with one word: “stability.” The lack of congressional term limits reflects this description well. According to Hamilton (1788), the near permanency of legislators not only preserves the legitimacy of law, but, likewise, acts as a defense against impetuous policy that could come as a result of frequent changes in congressional makeup. 46

Editorial cartoon: Uncle Sam directs U.S. Senators (and Representatives?) implicated in the Crédit Mobilier of America scandal to commit Hari-Kari. Carl Schurz and Charles Sumner peer out from behind a screen.
Keppler Credit Mobilier Hari-Kari Joseph Ferdinand Keppler is under Public Domain.

Apportionment: Congressional Representation

The Apportionment Act of 1913 set the size of the House of Representatives at 435. Because the number of seats allocated to each state is determined by the state’s population, seats in the House of Representatives must be reapportioned following the census every 10 years: 1

  • The Constitution states that “Representatives…shall be apportioned among the several states…according to their respective Numbers” and orders an “actual enumeration” (census) every ten years. 34 In light of this designation, every state is guaranteed at least one representative , in addition to two senators , regardless of population.
  • The term “apportionment” refers to the allocation of House seats to the states after each ten-year census.
  • “Redistricting” refers to the drawing of boundary lines of congressional districts following the census. There are a few key points to note about redistricting:
    • Malapportionment has long been an issue with the legislative process. Historically, the main cause behind malapportionment was population imbalance. Prior to Baker v. Carr , wherein the Supreme Court imposed statutory requirements on redistricting, some states had not redistricted in years. This led to unequal representation, with rural communities leveraging more representation in Congress than their fast growing, city-center counterparts. Case law, such as Wesberry v. Sanders , attempts to remedy this situation by demanding that congressional districts be of equal population. 1
    • The Fourteenth Amendment, according to the Supreme Court, enforces the concept of political equality; that is, one man, one vote. However, it, likewise, captures the notion of one person, one unit of representation meaning “districts are therefore drawn on equal population, not on equal votes.” 47
United States Congressional Apportionment 2012-2022
2010 Census Reapportionment by United States Census 2010 is under Public Domain.

Descriptive Representation

The theory of descriptive representation holds that the make-up of Congress should reflect the diversity observed within the American electorate, which includes differences in race, gender, sexuality, etc. On the other hand, substantive representation counters with the belief that representation should center around ideology versus demography, or simply put, representation and/or voting should be premised upon the “issue” alone. While it could be said that Congress simultaneously embodies both models of representation—especially, when we consider that the current, 115th Congress represents the most diverse body of legislators in U.S. history—disparities in representation, however, still persist:

  • Prior to the 1950s, women were grossly underrepresented in Congress. Though the number of women legislators has gradually risen, women today, while 51% of population, only makeup 20% of Congress.
  • Like women, the number of African-Americans in Congress has risen, but remains relatively low. Representing 13% of the overall population, African-Americans only make-up 9.6% of the membership of Congress. 1
  • In the same way, Hispanics make-up roughly 13% of the population and only make-up 5% of Congress. 48 Though, this information could change significantly in years to come, as Hispanics are projected to become the majority race in America by the year 2044. 49
  • Educational inconsistencies also play a role in weighing descriptive representation. For instance, over 40% of Congress is made up of members from the law profession. 48

To some, this data means that many members of Congress are not fit to adequately represent the interests of the average citizen, but from the glass-half-full perspective, this information is quite telling. In terms of gender, a 20 percent showing of women in Congress is promising when we consider that women only gained the right to vote in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment, less than a century ago, in a nation that is nearly two and-a-half centuries old.

Further, after the complete marginalization of African-Americans through slavery, and their political disenfranchisement in the era of Jim Crow, a 9.6 percent standing—in terms of overall representation—is not too shabby, especially when we consider that African-Americans have only been seated at the “political” table for the last fifty years; though, like other areas of minority representation, there is still much work to be done in order to transform Congress into the image of the American electorate. Projected changes in the nation’s population, though, is encouraging in this regard. 1

The 65 House Democratic women of the 115th Congress
The House Democratic Women of the 115th Congress by Office of Nancy Pelosi is in the Public Domain.