Reporter, The Fix

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump made term limits for Congress an integral part of his plan for how to make Washington less, well, swampy.

We didn't hear much from him about the idea after he won. Until now, 15 months into his presidency. Trump tweeted Monday that he had met with a handful of members of Congress who want to term-limit themselves. Some conservative lawmakers have been tweeting their support for the idea, too.

But don't let this sudden momentum on the right for term limits fool you. It's almost certainly not going to happen anytime soon, for a variety of reasons, such as these:

1. It's unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court ruled as much in 1995. As I wrote in October 2016 when Trump first proposed term limits: A 5-to-4 decision essentially wiped off the books term-limit laws that 23 states had for their congressional delegations. (The decision didn't affect term limits for state legislatures, and there are 15 states that impose them.)

That means that for congressional term limits to become legal again, Congress would have to amend the Constitution. Trump proposed a constitutional amendment during the campaign, and one member of Congress, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), has a bill out now to do that.

2. Changing the Constitution is really, really hard.


Lyndon B. Johnson takes the oath of office hours after President John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963. It wasn't until four years later that the 25th Amendment, setting rules on succession related to vacancies and disabilities in the office of the president, was ratified. (JFK Library/Reuters)

It's one of the most difficult things to do in politics. It requires agreement by a two-thirds supermajority in Congress (both chambers) and then ratification by three-fourths of states, or 38 out of 50. (Alternatively, 34 states could agree to call a constitutional convention to go around Congress, which has never happened.)

As I previously wrote, only 27 proposals out of countless ideas in our country's 240-year history have climbed that steep hill. And the circumstances leading to such action were often extreme, including political crises, war and death. 

The idea of term limits tends to get better reception on the right, so it's worth pointing out that Republicans control the legislatures in 32 states.

3. One word: Lobbyists.


Supporters of Donald Trump in October 2016. (Evan Vucci/AP)

If there's a profession in Washington more derided than members of Congress, it's lobbyists. (And journalists, depending on whom you're talking to.)

Political scientists say limiting how long lawmakers can stay in Washington would only empower the infrastructure surrounding Congress, like lobbyists (and, yes, the media). There are no rules about how long these professionals can stay, so they can spend years gaining expertise on the intricacies of legislating that term-limited members of Congress simply wouldn't or could never have.

“If members are restricted to only serving a few terms,” Molly Reynolds, a congressional expert with the Brookings Institution, told The Fix in a previous email, “the logic goes, they have neither the time nor the incentive to develop the relevant expertise they need to be good at their jobs. If members don’t have that expertise themselves, they’re more likely to rely on outsiders, including lobbyists, to replace that expertise.”

4. Another word: Staffers.


Congressional staffers in the Hart Senate Office Building on May 1. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Let's get real: The idea of a majority of lawmakers voting to end their political careers is laughable, at least in the near future. History is littered with broken self-imposed term-limit promises.

The Washington Post's Robert Costa reports that lawmakers also discussed with Trump on Monday the idea of term-limiting staffers.

That is “a terrible idea,” said Cornell law professor and constitutional law expert Josh Chafetz, much for the same reason as limiting lawmakers' jobs: It would empower people outside the Capitol. A staffer's job is to be the expert in a subject area for their boss.

“Staffers need time to become experts on substantive areas and on how Congress works as an institution. Term-limiting them would make acquiring that knowledge impossible,” Chafetz said. It “would just wind up shifting even more power toward lobbyists and toward the executive.”