As President Donald Trump casts his election victory as a rebuke against career politicians, the idea of imposing term limits on Congress has drawn renewed attention. Two Texas Republican leaders are pushing different approaches on how to get there.
Last month, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, proposed a constitutional amendment with U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., that would limit members of Congress to serving a maximum of three terms in the House and two in the Senate.
“In one word, [the amendment] is excellent,” said Philip Blumel, president of U.S. Term Limits, an organization that advocates for limiting the time elected officials serve at all levels of government. “It’s simple, straightforward, and it’s exactly the type of term limits amendment that polls show Americans are clamoring for.”
In a December Washington Post op-ed, Cruz and DeSantis wrote that imposing term limits would “put an end to the cronyism that has transformed Washington into a graveyard of good intentions,” something Trump previously said he supported as part of his anti-establishment bid for the White House.
“The American people have offered Republicans an opportunity to enact meaningful change,” Cruz and DeSantis wrote. “They have rejected the status quo and put the Washington elites on notice that they will no longer accept the old way of doing business.”
There are 88 current members of Congress who have served in their seats for 20 years or more, according to research from U.S. Term Limits. However, the average congressman only serves nine years in the U.S. House of Representatives and 10 years in the U.S. Senate.
Cruz previously backed a constitutional amendment that would place limits on both members of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court, another move supported by Trump. However, legislation to enact term limits typically faces an uphill battle in Congress, with members wary of limiting the amount of time they’re allowed to serve. The U.S. House of Representatives took up a measure to impose term limits on Congress in 1997, but it fell short of the support needed for passage. In 2012, the U.S. Senate also rejected a congressional term limits measure.
Gov. Greg Abbott wants to circumvent Congress altogether by invoking the other method for amending the U.S. Constitution: assembling a convention of states. By law, if 34 states ask for a constitutional convention, they may meet to consider changes. Any amendment would require the support of at least 38 states to become law.
"What we need is states to lead the way in proposing constitutional amendments because you know that the president-elect himself has called for one of the constitutional amendments that we are calling for, which is to put term limits on members of the United States Congress," Abbott said in December at a convention of states gathering.
Although his own party controls both the White House and both houses of Congress, Abbott has made assembling a convention of states to amend the U.S. Constitution one of the top priorities of his governorship, with the goal of limiting the power and reach of the federal government.
In early December, a convention-of-states resolution was filed in the Texas House by state Rep. Rick Miller, R-Sugar Land, and in the Senate by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury. Abbott has declared the issue one of four emergency items for the session.
However, not everyone supports limiting how long members of Congress can serve. Democrat Ted Kaufman, who served only two years in the U.S. Senate representing Delaware, told the Tribune that he thinks term limits will do more harm than good.
"When you come in brand new, it's like that high school student that comes to college and wants to talk about how great they were in high school. That's the way most of the new members who spout term limits sound like," Kaufman said. "If the whole Congress was made up of people like this, nothing would get done."
Kaufman added that term limits weaken Congress because they take power away from senior legislators. He adds he "doesn't think there's any chance" the constitutional amendment proposed by Cruz and DeSantis will ever pass.
"Do you really want to put someone in charge of the tax code who's been there for six years?" Kaufman said. "The senior members usually make the most sense because they have a deeper understanding of what the policy considerations are."
Desantis said passing a term limits amendment through either means would be "terrific" but acknowledged certain benefits to going through Congress, which is how the 27 existing amendments to the U.S. Constitution were all approved.
“The benefit of doing [the amendment] through the Congress is that this is the traditional route that has been used through the years. The benefit of doing term limits via Article V is that it would allow term limits advocates to bypass Congress, which is the main impediment to term limits,” DeSantis told The Texas Tribune. “The drawback is that doing an Article V amendment-convention has never been done before, and there would be some apprehension about how it would work in practice.”
However, Tamara Colbert, the co-director of Texas’ Convention of States Project, said she believes amending the constitution to enact term limits through a convention of states has the better chance of success. She described Cruz's and DeSantis’ proposed amendment as “pushing a big, fat rock uphill.”
“Do I think the 535 members of Congress are going to vote for [the constitutional amendment]? Not a snowball’s chance. I just don’t see anything happening inside the beltway,” Colbert said. “But Cruz and DeSantis are on the right track. They just need their grassroots army, which are the 70 percent of Americans who want term limits.”
Colbert said one argument against pushing for Congress to impose term limits on themselves is that few members of Congress would vote to limit their own power. Her belief was echoed by Blumel, with U.S. Term Limits.
“It might be up to the states and the people to go around Congress through an Article V convention,” said Blumel. “If a lot of states call for an Article V convention, that might put pressure on Congress to act.”
“If suddenly the members of Congress have a momentary wake up and they unanimously voted this amendment — awesome,” Colbert added. “Then what we would focus on in the convention of states is on judiciary term limits."
Read our related coverage:
- Just over a year ago, Gov. Greg Abbott first called for a convention of U.S. states to pass nine new amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
- After the November election, Abbott said President-elect Donald Trump "epitomizes exactly why we need a convention of states."
- Abbott published his first book last year. It recounted his life story and advanced his push for a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution.