The Question of Congressional Term Lengths and Limits

By David NaarLast Updated Feb 27, 2021 3:00:27 PM ET
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While Congress is made up of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, members of each of these two bodies are elected to serve for different amounts of time. We’re taking a look at how term lengths differ for officials elected to each part of Congress and delve into why the founders set it up that way. And we’ll delve into the issue of term limits, which are laws that would limit how many times each member of Congress can run for reelection.

Term Lengths: Senate vs. House of Representatives

While we vote for who should hold the office of president every four years, congressional elections work a little differently. Members of the House of Representatives only serve two-year terms, unless they are reelected. These reelections happen every even-numbered year.

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Senators, however, get to serve for six years before they have to run for reelection again. Their reelections are staggered so that you'll never see every single senator up for reelection at the same time. Instead, every even year, only about one-third of the Senate comes up for reelection after they've served their full six-year term.

How many terms can a member of Congress serve if they keep getting reelected? Currently, as many as they want. Unlike presidents, members of Congress are under no obligation to retire after serving for a certain number of years.

House of Representatives: Term Lengths and Limits

So, why do members of the House and Senate have different term lengths? For answers, let's rewind. Back when the founders were figuring out how the government of the U.S. should be structured, they divided Congress into two halves so that each could serve a specific set of needs.

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The House of Representatives is composed of elected officials from each state. The larger the population of the state, the more representatives they get to elect. This was supposed to ensure that the overall population of the U.S. was fairly represented, no matter where they lived. One of the reasons that a House official's term is so short is to keep them on their toes, so to speak. By more or less constantly being up for reelection, a House member's career depends on staying up-to-date with the preferences of their constituents.

Senate: Term Lengths and Limits

The Senate, on the other hand, is composed of two representatives from each state who each serve for a term of six years at a time. While the House of Representatives was designed to stay on top of the "pulse of the people," the Senate was intended to be a little more detached.

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As James Madison put it, "If it not be a firm body, the other branch being more numerous, and coming immediately from the people, will overwhelm it." In other words, the Senate is there to make sure that the government isn't entirely dependent on the ever-changing whims and passions of the people.

In order to keep the Senate from feeling completely free to do their own thing, however, the founders decided on the idea of having 1/3 revolving elections every two years. That way, the Senate would always be stable, yet somewhat up for change.

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What Are Term Limits?

If there is a two-term limit on the office of president, why isn't there one for members of Congress? Well, keep in mind that the presidential term limit didn't always exist. In fact, there were no term limits for federal officials at all for over the first 150 years of U.S. history.

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While the two-year term limit was sort of an unofficial presidential tradition, plenty of presidents ran for a third term, but only one managed to get reelected. In fact, FDR was elected president four times — in 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944. It wasn't until February of 1951 that the 22nd Amendment was formally ratified to establish the two-term presidential limit as U.S. law.

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Ironically, there actually were some Congressional term limits at one time, but they were eventually thrown out. In 1995, 23 different states had passed laws that limited how many terms their elected officials could serve in Congress. A politician from Arkansas, however, decided that he wanted the law thrown out in his state. Long story short, the issue went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was ultimately decided that states could not impose Congressional term limits on their representatives.

Should Congress Have Term Limits?

One of the main arguments made by the Supreme Court when they decided to toss state-imposed term limits was that that sort of thing should be done through a Constitutional amendment. As such, whether or not there should be such an amendment has become a matter of heated debate.

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Those who support congressional term limits argue that doing so would keep anyone from becoming a "career politician." The idea here is that this would force members of Congress to concentrate more on their constituents' best interests rather than those of special interests groups or campaign donors. Term-limit supporters also argue that limiting the terms of those in Congress is more in-line with the original intent of the founders and the majority will of the people.

Those who oppose term limits argue that since members of Congress can only continue to serve if re-elected, it should be up to voters when to remove them. Some claim that term limits would work against voters, by preventing them from keeping a representative they loved around long-term. Additionally, some argue that being a member of Congress in and of itself is like any other career path and that representatives only get better with experience.

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There is currently a joint resolution under consideration that would make congressional term limits a reality. Check out U.S. Term Limits for more information and to learn how you can contact your representatives to voice your opinion.