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Why is it so difficult to impose term limits on members of Congress?

Having term limits would take a literal act of Congress -- and a constitutional amendment.
Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
A U.S. Capitol Police officer walks down the steps in front of the House of Representatives January 03, 2019 in Washington, DC.

Members of Congress can serve as many times as they are elected, but some -- including some members of Congress -- aren't happy about that.

State and federal lawmaker and advocates have been pushing for and proposing congressional term limits for more than 20 years. A 1995 U.S. Supreme Court case ruled that states cannot impose term limits on their federal senators or representatives.

During the 115th Congress, there were at least nine proposals from federal lawmakers to enact congressional term limits. None of them moved any farther than being introduced in either the House or the Senate.

The push for term limits has gained even more fervor since the 2016 election when now-President Donald Trump made imposing term limits a big part of his campaign platform to "drain the swamp." That was almost three years ago. Congress still doesn't have term limits.

Why is it so difficult to impose term limits on Congress? There's only one way to do it: a constitutional amendment.

That constitutional amendment would need approval by two-thirds of the Senate and the House on the term limit proposal. Term limits could also be proposed at a convention called by two-thirds of state legislatures (34 states). If either of those two things happen, ratification and implementation would require either three-fourths of state legislatures to vote yes on the amendment or Congress to push states to create ratification conventions. In these conventions, three-fourths of all states must still approve the amendment.

Sound complicated? It is. Constitutional amendments have only been ratified and implemented 27 times in the history of the United States. Hence, the 27 amendments.

In 1995's U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that states are not allowed to impose term limits on their respective members of Congress. The case came about after an amendment to the Arkansas Constitution tried to keep from the ballot any Congressional candidates who had already served three terms in the House or two terms in the Senate.

The group behind the case, U.S. Term Limits, Inc., is still pushing for congressional term limits. So far, it's noted three states that have called for an Article V amendment convention to vote on term limits for members of Congress. Florida passed legislation in February 2016, Alabama in January 2018 and Missouri in May 2018. 

Back in 2017, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and then Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) introduced a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on members of Congress. Two years later, Cruz and Rep. Francis Rooney of Florida proposed an amendment again that would limit terms for both houses of Congress.

The proposal is co-sponsored by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and David Perdue (R-Ga.). The amendment would limit senators to two six-year terms and representatives to three two-year terms.

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