Term Limits in the Political World

BY ROY ADAMS                                                                                                                         [Main Story]
Outside the United States,” according to John Carey, “four nations limit legislative terms constitutionally: Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, and the Philippines.”1 Under the Philippine constitution, to cite one example, “the president is allowed a single six-year term and senators two.”2 The same limits are observed in Mexico. Since 1951, with the Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution, the United States has placed a limit of two terms on its presidency. This is an absolute limit, meaning that the same person may never serve as president again, unlike the situation in Russia where the president may serve more than two terms, if they are not consecutive.

Of course, in countries with parliamentary systems of government, term limits would be irrelevant, since the head of government serves only as long as they maintain the confidence of the legislature.

In the U.S. the height of the recent term-limits movement (that sought to broaden the practice beyond the presidency) came in the early 1990s. In 1990 a California referendum approved the idea with 52 percent of the vote, limiting members of the state assembly to three 2-year terms and members of the state senate to two 4-year terms.

Riding on the wave of this movement, House Republicans in 1994 enshrined term limits into their “Contract with America.” And in that same year, Republican representative George R. Nethercutt of Washington State (at that time the poster child for the term‑limits movement) defeated the long-serving Democratic incumbent, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, for the U.S. Congress.

By 2000, however, the term‑limits movement generally had lost its steam, and “the endeavor that once captured the imagination of voters as a way of removing entrenched politicians” began to flag, “as the country enjoy[ed] a record run of prosperity and the anger that propelled the effort . . . dissipated.”3 The U.S. Supreme Court in 1998 upheld term limits for states, but ruled it unconstitutional in respect to federal offices. And “despite the Republican majority declaring term limits a priority in their 1994 ‘Contract . . . ,’ the 104th Congress [1995-1996]twice failed to muster the two-thirds votes needed for a constitutional amendment.”4

I have not had time to study where the issue stands today in the U.S. But it’s remarkable that the Republican Party’s “Pledge to America” (issued in September, and widely seen as a parallel to the 1994 “Contract” that touted term limits) is totally silent on the subject.

1 John M. Carey, Term Limits and Legislative Representation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 3. Perhaps “several” may be more accurate. According to one source, “term limits are . . . common in Latin America” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Term_limit). Because of our limited purpose in this article, there is no need to verify these details.
3 Matthew Vita, “Political Appeal of Term Limits Appears to Wane,” Washington Post, July 17, 2000, p. A1.
4 Susan Heavey, Washingtonpost.com: Term Limits Special Report, updated March 5, 1999.

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