Term Limits: Why or why not?

In the United States, term limits for legislators is a somewhat frequent topic of debate. But to be honest, I’m not very clear on what the main arguments are for or against.

As I understand it, here’s where things currently stand regarding term lengths/limits for the three major branches of government in the United States (please correct me if I get anything wrong):

Executive Branch - The President of the United States serves for four years per term, and can serve for a maximum of two terms for a total of eight years (though it’s possible to have a different president between the two terms).

Legislative Branch - Congress is split between the House of Representatives and the senate. Representatives serve two year terms, while Senators serve six year terms. There is currently no limit on the number of terms they can serve as long as they keep getting reelected for each new term.

Judicial Branch - Chief Justices of the Supreme Court are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, after which they serve for life (or until retirement). They never come up for reelection/reappointment, and there is no limit to how long they can serve.

It sometimes feels like members of congress in particular are always campaigning, and that even after getting elected their primary focus is on doing/saying whatever helps them win the next election. Some might see that as a good thing: after all, they represent the people, so they should do what the people want, right? But on the other hand, whatever is most popular at the time may not be what’s best for the country, and at times may even conflict with existing laws of the land, including the Constitution. And yet the pressure remains to do whatever will get you reelected. Maybe this pressure could be decreased if one knew they weren’t going to have the job for the rest of their life.

In addition, there’s the concern that politicians who serve for too long become out of touch with the people they serve. They might keep getting reelected, but this is more out of familiarity, name-recognition, etc. than objective merit. If they could only serve a limited number of terms, it would allow new people in more frequently.

But on the other hand, maybe it can also be argued that experience matters a lot, and that the longer one serves in office, the better they get at their job and the more effectively they can serve the people who elected them. If they aren’t doing a good job, let people vote them out. If they are, why not let them stay?

The Supreme Court is a particularly interesting case. Since Justices are not elected directly by the people and can’t be voted out, they are not beholden to public opinion, which is by design. However, their lifetime appointment also presents some problems. Since it’s the President who appoints them, existing Justices may base their decision of whether or not to retire on who the sitting President is, rather than on whether they can continue to do a good job. In addition, pure random chance may cause some Presidents to have a much larger impact on the court than others if multiple Justices happen to pass away or are forced to retire because they can no longer fulfill their duties while that President is in office. This causes the appointment of Justices to be very politicized when they are supposed to be impartial. If there was a limit to how long they could serve, even if it was a long one, perhaps it would reduce the apparent randomness in when new Justices are appointed, even if it didn’t do away with it entirely.

And finally, there’s the Executive branch. The President currently does have term limits. Is that a good thing? Is there any argument for allowing a President to serve more than two terms?

Currently, I think term limits for the President are good (and I’d strongly distrust any sitting President who said otherwise). I find myself leaning towards thinking it would be good if there were a limit on how many terms members of congress could serve, as well as the number of years a Supreme Court Justice could serve, but I don’t have strong opinions on that and would welcome the thoughts and input of others on the subject. I’m also happy to hear any thoughts from those outside the U.S. on how their own government differs and whether they think it’s better or worse for it.


I think term limits are a good thing, though I don’t think they should apply across all positions; if someone is experienced, they’re welcome to try to get a different position. Let their experience be diversified, or let them fade into obscurity. If nothing else, age limits might be helpful. People are living longer, and more and more people are becoming vulnerable to senility, and we want to protect from that.

Plus, even if someone is a great leader who works into an old age for the country… they deserve a retirement.

There is an argument for a president serving more than two terms: the president is publicly elected. They are democratically selected by the public to run. A law barring a candidate the public wants to hold office impedes democracy, and the twenty second amendment of the United States, the term limits being discussed, were passed in 1947 in response to Franklin Roosevelt’s unprecedented four terms as president. It was passed to counter a popular figure from holding that position for too long.

FDR obviously did not win four elections because he was a tyrant; he won because he passed good policies that the public supported and benefitted from. And he was given a mandate spanning sixteen years to accomplish it in. A president is lucky today if their term lasts a full eight years, and it’s unlikely they will have sufficient pull in Congress or the Senate to use all of that time effectively.

I’d add that the idea that term limits are an effective tool against tyranny or despotism is too easily assumed. Most democratic countries do not have term limits and are not less democratic as a result. It does not seem effective at countering autocracy or producing better governance. Term limits in America seem like a lateral change at best, and play into the mindset that the people framing the laws should have a mechanism of vetoing a candidate who is supposed to be the public’s to choose.