Term Limits, Career Politicians, and the Octogenarian Caucus

By George Barr

Yesterday was a special day. U.S. Representative Nita Lowey of New York turned 80, and we would like to extend her our best wishes. As she ascends to the fabled Octogenarian Caucus, I thought it appropriate to take a look at the eldest members of Congress. Representative Lowey joins as the eleventh octogenarian currently serving in the lower chamber. These eleven octogenarians have been in the House for over 330 years collectively. Yes, on average they have been in Congress for over 30 years each. On one hand, I expected there to be even more elderly congressmen. As an undergraduate, I wrote my senior seminar paper on the demographics of the United States Senate, and learned that the average U.S. Senator at the time was 65 years old. I concluded that we’ve become a gerontocracy; even today, seven of the hundred Senators are over 80. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with an aged legislature. Age often brings wisdom. Also, there are over nine million Americans over the age of 80–nearly 3% of the population–and they deserve representation. A bigger concern is that seven U.S. Senators have been in office longer than I’ve been alive (25 years)—and that set of seven is not identical to the Senate octogenarian caucus.

There are 29 members of the United States House of Representatives who have been serving continuous since before I was born. Now, initially, I didn’t have strong feelings about term limits. If people democratically choose to send the same person to Washington to represent them for three decades straight, what’s the problem? The problem is that incumbents are almost universally re-elected about 96% of the time when they choose to run for their office again. This incumbency advantage can virtually nullify objective scrutiny of politicians’ behavior (or voting record) as a legislator. Often, incumbents are re-elected even after committing ethics violations and in rare cases, after their death. Long-term incumbency leads to legislators being beholden to the special interest groups that fund their campaigns rather than the communities that actually vote for them.

George Washington. First in the hearts of his countrymen. He set a lot of precedents for presidential behavior and tradition. He felt that serving more than two four-year terms would liken him to a monarch. Having established a new republic, Washington detested any resemblance between his government and the one he fought so hard to break away from. He was not royalty or nobility, he was a servant of the people—a fact that he was more acutely aware of than most Americans at the time. After Washington refused to seek a third term, every president after him followed that tradition for nearly 150 years. After Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected a fourth time, Congress scrambled to amend the Constitution to preclude future presidents from serving more than two and a half terms. Granted, individual U.S. Senators and Representatives don’t wield as much power as a President does, but the fact remains that our founding fathers did not intend for legislators to be “career politicians”. The vast majority of the Americans agree with this sentiment. So far, 15 state legislatures have been given term limits by the people, so about 25% of state legislators are subject to term limits. In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for states to limit the number of terms that their delegation in Washington, D.C. can serve. Thus, to create terms limits for federal office (beyond the Presidency), a Constitutional Amendment is required.

Opinion polls show a strong support for Congressional term limits, over 75% of people support the idea, but a Constitutional Amendment needs support from ¾ of the states to get ratified. So, while more than a quarter of the United States have already imposed term limits on their state legislatures, many more states will likely pass legislation at the state level before we see Congress move toward an Amendment.

George Barr is a 2013 graduate of Eastern Connecticut State University, holding dual B.A. degrees in Spanish and political science. He currently resides in Indiana and is a regular contributor to ElectricLiberty.org.