Enact term limits
As the political outsider turned president of the United States, Donald Trump has proposed a five-point plan to crack down on corruption in Washington in his first 100 days in office. Included in that crack down: establishing congressional term limits.
"If I’m elected president, I will push for a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress,” Trump said at a rally in Colorado Springs, Colo. “Right? They’ve been talking about that for years.”
Under Trump’s proposal, U.S. House members would be limited to six years and senators would be limited to 12 years. This promise will be a challenge because the only one way to enact congressional term limits is through a constitutional amendment, which has only happened 27 times in the history of the United States.
WHY HE'S PROMISING IT
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives can serve unlimited two-year terms. Senators can serve unlimited six-year terms.
Supporters of Trump’s initiatives believe unlimited terms motivate representatives to focus on getting re-elected, thus causing a disconnect between the voter and politician. Those who favor unlimited congressional term limits believe the time allows the officeholder to fully understand the issues facing the constituency.
WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN
There’s only one way to enact congressional term limits — a constitutional amendment.
An amendments can be proposed in two ways. The first way is approval by two-thirds of the Senate and the House on the proposal. Amendments can also be proposed at a convention called by two-thirds of state legislatures.
From there, there are two ways to ratify an amendment. The first is if three-fourths of state legislatures vote in favor of the amendment. The second is if Congress directs states to establish ratifying conventions where three-fourths of all states must approve of the amendment.
On January 3, 2017, former presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) introduced an amendment to impose term limits on members of Congress. It would limit U.S. senators to two six-year terms and members of the U.S. House of Representatives to three two-year terms.
WHAT’S STANDING IN HIS WAY
Past proposals to establish term limits have never been successful, sometimes facing opposition from both parties.
Two decades ago, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich unveiled the “Contract with America,” which included a proposal to establish term limits. The proposal for term limits was brought to Congress as a constitutional amendment and failed in the House.
“This frankly feels like one of those zombie policy ideas that just doesn't die, and pops up in response to frustration with Congress,” said Laura Blessing, a professor at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.
No immediate path seen for congressional term-limits
Despite taking some steps to push for congressional term limits, President Donald Trump has run into almost insurmountable obstacles with congressional leaders -- much less enacting the required constitutional amendment.
Here's what Trump has tried: In April 2018, Trump cheered on a bipartisan group of lawmakers who met with him and discussed their support term limits for members of Congress. The lawmakers included Reps. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis.; Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas; Jodey Arrington, R-Texas; Ro Khanna, D-Calif.; and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., CNN reported.
"I recently had a terrific meeting with a bipartisan group of freshman lawmakers who feel very strongly in favor of Congressional term limits," he tweeted. "I gave them my full support and endorsement for their efforts. #DrainTheSwamp."
The following month, some of the lawmakers who met with Trump released a proposal to limit senators to two terms and House members to six terms.
Several pieces of legislation were introduced in the Congress that just ended, but those would have to be reintroduced in the new Congress to be pursued further.
And as a constitutional amendment, the bar for enactment is especially high: two-thirds of the House and Senate and ratification by two-thirds of the states.
And congressional leaders are likely to remain an obstacle.
In a November 2016 press conference, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was asked if the Senate would consider legislation to limit terms. McConnell responded, "I would say we have term limits now. They're called elections. And it will not be on the agenda in the Senate."
We checked with his office, and a spokesman said that McConnell's position remains the same two years on. McConnell's opposition alone makes it nearly impossible for the idea to be considered in the Senate while he's leader, which essentially puts the kibosh on the idea.
We also checked with the office of expected House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. A spokesman said he was unaware of any push from Pelosi's office to seek term limits. (In negotiations with fellow Democrats, Pelosi did agree to a two-term limit on her own speakership, but that's different from term limits for all members of Congress.)
If the movement for term limits gathers steam, we'll reconsider. But right now, strong opposition from the Senate leadership means congressional term limits rate as a Promise Broken.
Donald Trump, tweet, April 30, 2018
CNN, "Trump brings back call for term limits," April 30, 2018
The Hill, "Freshman lawmakers introduce congressional term limits proposal," May 10, 2018
Email interview with Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., Dec. 4, 2018
McConnell poses big obstacle to enacting congressional term limits
Now that he's president, Donald Trump's promise to enact congressional term limits is getting a modicum of support in the House, but it faces a firm roadblock in the Senate -- not to mention an arduous path through the nation's state legislatures if it somehow clears both hurdles on Capitol Hill.
As we have noted, enacting term limits can only be done through a constitutional amendment. That's an arduous process that has only been achieved 27 times in the nation's history.
There's a sliver of good news for Trump in the House, where eight bills to impose term limits have been introduced by a variety of Republican lawmakers.
In addition, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has introduced a similar bill in the Senate, where it has secured co-sponsorship by 10 of his colleagues.
However, in his post-election press conference in November, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was asked if the Senate would consider legislation to limit terms.
McConnell responded, "I would say we have term limits now. They're called elections. And it will not be on the agenda in the Senate."
Since McConnell essentially has the authority to determine what business the Senate takes up, his opposition is an almost insurmountable obstacle. We rate this promise Stalled.
NBC News, "McConnell Differs From Trump on Term Limits, NATO," Nov. 9, 2017
Email interview with Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., March 27, 2017