Term Limits Special Report
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Newt Gingrich holds a copy of the 1994 "Contract With America," which promised term limits. (AP)
Term Limits Take Effect

By Susan Heavey
Washingtonpost.com Staff
Updated March 5, 1999

Are career politicians bad for the country? Proponents of term limits think so, and 18 states have passed laws automatically forcing longtime legislators out of office – even if voters want to reelect them.

Congressional efforts to limit the terms of members of the House and Senate died out in early 1997, but limits for members of state assemblies are flourishing. In 1996, term limits required 52 state legislators to leave office. Last year, more than 200 were forced to retire from statehouses across the country. The impact was felt hardest in the Arkansas and Michigan legislatures: Half of Arkansas's 100 members and 67 of Michigan's 110 served their final terms.

Along with the record turnover came a record number of newcomers with little or no political experience. Opponents of term limits argue that such inexperience will hurt voters, as rookie legislators find it hard to navigate the bureaucracy. They say limits force out well-regarded politicians who have formed strong ties with their constituents and erode democracy by taking away voters' rights to choose their representative.

Proponents see career politicians as the greater threat. They say careerists are so intent to stay in office that they are more likely to betray their constituents and bow to corruption. Proponents say they hope term limits will encourage newcomers to take risks and push for ethics reform. Another likely result: an increased number of elected women and minorities.

In March 1998, the Supreme Court let stand term limits for state lawmakers, permitting California, which has some of the country's strictest tenure restrictions, to continue enforcing them.

Some states have even tried to limit the terms of their members of Congress. In 1995, however, the Supreme Court ruled that letting states establish such restrictions would violate the Constitution and weaken Congress's national character. The only way to limit congressional terms is to amend the Constitution, the court ruled.

Despite the Republican majority declaring term limits a priority in their 1994 "Contract With America," the 104th Congress twice failed to muster the two-thirds votes needed for a constitutional amendment. Once a hot topic, congressional term limits have disappeared from the national agenda – though some members have vowed to limit themselves.

This special report includes key stories from The Post and an annotated list of resources and links. You can also follow the debate between Post columnists David S. Broder and George F. Will on the issue.

Susan Heavey can be reached at heaveys@washpost.com

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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