The New Partisan Battleground: Committee Term Limits
Capitol Hill had been relatively quiet the last several days. The House and Senate have been in recess for the Easter and Passover holidays, the White House hosted its annual Easter Egg Roll for the first time since 2019, and there has been noticeably less traffic in the nation’s capital. But then Republican leaders dropped a bombshell. On Monday, the Beltway-focused online news outlet Punchbowl News reported that, if the GOP takes control of the House after this November’s elections, as polls widely suggest they could, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the presumed House Speaker-in-waiting, will impose term limits on the individuals who lead each House committee for each party.
As Punchbowl noted, this move would not be a major shift for Republican committee leaders. Since 1994, GOP lawmakers have been limited to three consecutive terms, or six years, as the senior Republican on any given House committee. Democrats don’t have any term limits, however, so “such a move … would drastically alter the makeup of the House.”
Let’s review the history of term limits and what, if enacted, this particular proposal could mean from a practical perspective.
The History of Congressional Term Limits
Wondering where Republicans came up with six years as the right amount of service? Look at the country’s founding documents.
According to West Texas A&M University political science professor John David Rausch, Jr., while term limits gained political popularity in the 1990s, “the idea of placing limits on the amount of time an elected official spends in office has been debated since before the framing of the Constitution of the United States.” Indeed, under the Articles of Confederation—the precursor to the U.S. Constitution— members of Congress were selected by state legislatures annually with the restriction that “no person shall be capable of being a delegate for more than three years in any term of six years.” (Emphasis added.)
In August 1789, a month before the U.S. Constitution was ratified, Rep. Thomas Tucker offered the first term limits proposal for House and Senate lawmakers. He had a similar timeframe in mind. Under his proposed amendment, senators would be able to serve one, five-year term in any six-year period and House members would be limited to serving three two-year terms in any eight-year period. That proposal was defeated in committee and, as a result, the Constitution contains no term limits for members of the House or Senate.
Flash forward more than 150 years to March 12, 1947, when the full Senate voted on term limits for the first time ever. In an overwhelming 82-1 vote, senators defeated an amendment to impose a two-term limit on lawmakers.
The next full Senate vote on term limits occurred 43 years later on May 22, 1991 when Sen. Hank Brown offered a plan to limit the use of public funds by representatives or senators who serve an aggregate of more than 12 years in their respective chamber. That idea was defeated by a vote of 68 to 30.
The 1990s: Term Limits’ Golden Era?
As Ballotpedia explains, congressional term limits “featured prominently in the Republican Party’s Contract with America in the United States House 1994 election campaign and may well have contributed to the Republicans gaining control of the United States House of Representatives from the Democratic Party for the first time since the United States 1952 elections.”
After Republicans took the majority in 1995, GOP leaders brought to the floor a constitutional amendment to limit House members to six two-year terms and members of the Senate to two six-year terms. The idea still wasn’t politically popular enough to prevail. While the amendment would have required a two-thirds majority to be enacted (meaning the GOP needed Democratic votes), “even with Republicans holding 230 seats in the House, the amendment did not receive a simple majority,” Ballotpedia explains.
The terms limit movement went quiet for about 13 years after that vote. According to U.S. Term Limits, the organization leading the fight for term limits at the state and federal level, the organization did not support a single term limit resolution introduced in Congress between 1996 and 2009. There have been resolutions offered in every Congress since then, however. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is the current author of the idea in the Senate. His resolution has 15 cosponsors. Rep. Ralph Norman’s (R-S. Caro.) House resolution has 80 cosponsors.
To be clear: Democrats are no strangers to the idea of term limits. According to Punchbowl, the party “had term limits in place [for committee leadership] when they took over the House following the 2006 elections, but then eliminated them” and “debated instituting term limits for all of their leaders and committee chairs in 2018,” but never followed through.
What Committee Term Limits Could Mean for Congressional Operations
Republicans need to win just a few extra seats to regain control of the House after this year’s midterm congressional elections. Democrats already were biting their nails at the idea of losing control, but GOP leaders’ proposal to limit the terms of committee chairs has made some veteran lawmakers even more anxious.
There are currently 20 standing committees in the House of Representatives. As Punchbowl noted, at least seven Democratic current committee chairs would not be able to serve as the lead Democrat on one of these committees if Republicans impose term limits. Those are:
Judiciary Committee lead Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), who has been the top Democrat on the committee since 2017.
Ways and Means Committee lead Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), who has been the top Democrat on the committee since 2017.
Energy and Commerce Committee lead Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who has been the top Democrat on the committee since 2015.
Financial Services Committee lead Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who has been the top Democrat on the committee since 2013.
Armed Services Committee lead Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who has been the top Democrat on the committee since 2011.
Homeland Security Committee lead Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), who has been the top Democrat on the committee since 2005.
Small Business Committee lead Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), who has been the top Democrat on the committee since 1998.
Losing these leaders—or any for that matter—equates to a loss of institutional and substantive knowledge. Seniority means these lawmakers are relative experts in both their subject matter and the legislative process more broadly. Organizations and individuals with matters before the committees would need to work even harder to educate a new crop of leaders at least every six years. (Committee staff do not serve at the pleasure of the chair or ranking member, however, so would not be compelled to leave.)
Imposing term limits at the committee level also could impact the amount of time lawmakers serve in the House or Senate. According to the Congressional Institute, if a lawmaker loses power on a committee, they are more likely to retire from Congress altogether. Scholars from the Brookings Institution have reached the same conclusion. Since 1980, in Congresses where there were no rules forcing chairs to step down, approximately 8.6 percent of chairs retired. In Congresses where rules forced retirement, roughly 12.3 percent of chairs left the chamber
Democrats Divided over Committee Leader Term Limits
But it is not only the loss of expertise that matters. As with a change in filibuster rules in the Senate, imposing term limits on the other party would inject another level of partisanship and combativeness into congressional operations. Punchbowl said the move would be a “huge breach of tradition” since, “for decades, the two parties have set their own internal rules to decide who sits on committees and for how long.”
A breach of tradition that, from the GOP perspective, Democrats may have hastened. As Punchbowl also noted, Democrats ousted Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) from her committees after she made violent comments aimed at Democrats and did the same to Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) after he posted an animated video where his character killed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and threatened President Joe Biden. Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) told The Hill, “When the Democrats voted to remove Republican members from committees, they pierced the veil and justified Republican members who want to make sure everybody’s abiding by the same rules next year.”
Republicans might have some unusual allies in their effort to limit the terms of committee chairs: rank and file Democrats. According to The Hill, “Younger and newer House Democrats have long expressed discontent about a lack of term limits for the party’s top officials on committees, arguing that the current system provides few opportunities for advancement and prevents new ideas from being injected into policymaking.”
One Democratic member of the House told Punchbowl that “Republicans would be doing Democrats a favor if they injected some fresh blood into their upper ranks.”
We’ll likely soon see.