Popular, but possible? Sen. Ted Cruz backs term limits for Congress

Senators would get two terms and House members would get three under the proposal.

By Michael MarksJanuary 30, 2023 3:06 pm,

Sen. Ted Cruz proposed a constitutional amendment last week to limit the number of terms that members of Congress can serve.

The measure would restrict members of the Senate to two terms and members of the House of Representatives to three. The length of each chamber’s term would stay the same – six years for the Senate, two for the House.

David Rausch, the Teel Bivins professor of political science at West Texas A&M University, has studied terms limits in U.S. politics. He spoke to the Texas Standard about how term limits affect policy and politicians’ behavior. 

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: I know you’ve studied this issue quite a while now. Sen. Cruz says term limits are critical to fix what’s wrong in Washington. But are they, politically speaking, possible? In your view, do the limits that he’s proposing here have any hope of actually being passed into law?

David Rausch: Probably not, since mostly both parties in both houses seem to oppose a majority. It’s good to put in campaign commercials; it’s great to put on your party’s platform. But whether or not it would actually make it through the House and the Senate … almost guaranteed, though, if it does make it through the House and the Senate, it’ll probably be approved by the state legislatures.

In the 1990s, a number of states imposed term limits on their members. Can you describe some of the effects of that movement?

Most of the states that enacted term limits on their legislatures enacted them through direct democracy. So folks in those states – and in some cases, folks from other states coming into those states – circulating petitions to put on the ballot. So they were mostly enacted by a citizen petition.

I do want to ask about the about the issue that it seems Sen. Cruz wants to deal with, and that is how politicians act if they’re constantly running for reelection. I mean, the idea out there is that if you have a term limit, then in that last term, typically speaking, a politician will move away from voting ideologically so that they can win their primaries and get on about the business of governing, at least in that final term. Does that happen? 

Not so much. If you look again at the states, it really depends – are you in your final term in the upper chamber, so you really either may have to run for governor or run for U.S. senator, you know, go a higher office? Really that last term, what ends up happening is you’re running for your next office. And so that’s one of the things I’ve been looking at – there’s a county in California that’s had term limits since 1980. So there’s a long period of time. And I’ve been doing a sort of project that I call, you know, where do they come from? Where do they go? And in most cases, you find out that it’s city council people running for county, and then after they’re done in the county, then they’ll run for the state legislature, and then they may even run for the U.S. Congress, U.S. Senate and that type of thing. So what it really does is there’s a political science term called progressive ambition, and in many cases it speeds up their progressive ambition.

One of the arguments raised against term limits is that once someone is forced out of a chamber, you lose the value of their experience and institutional knowledge. Has that proven to be a significant issue for those that have put term limits in place?

It depends. That’s one where, you know, your answer depends on where you sit. You know, if it’s a senior Democrat and you’re a member of the Democratic Party, we don’t want to lose them. If it’s a senior Democrat and you’re a member of the Republican Party, we want them out of there right now. And so that’s you know, what do they do with that institutional memory? You know, do they enact for the public good, or are they trying to enact for their party’s platform – which one would hope would be the public good. But, you know, it’s just one of those, I always hate to say this, and my students hate when I say it: It depends.

When you look at the current political climate, do you think the public is receptive to term limits at present, or no?

Oh, very receptive. In fact, most public opinion polls find at least 75%, 80%, maybe even 85% support for term limits across both parties. And particularly we always look at these in campaigns. Independent voters are really big on term limits. But then again, you ask them why – it’s really not to fix Congress. It’s really, in most cases back in the 90s, a lot of the people who voted for term limits were trying to get rid of Sen. Ted Kennedy, even though they didn’t live in Massachusetts. And these are legislative term limits, not congressional term limits.

I remember in Oklahoma, there was one particular senator in southeast Oklahoma that was sort of like the poster child for term limits. He had been in since like the 50s, maybe late 40s. And a lot of people were saying, we’re going to vote for term limits to get him out of office. I was like, well, but he really represents that district. Shouldn’t you ask those folks to vote him out of office?

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