Congress is full of decades-long representation: Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) has served for almost 52 years, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) has been around for 54 years, and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is on year 39.
But Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.) — who himself has hit the decade mark — wants that to change. In a constitutional amendment introduced last week, Goode aims to limit how long Members can stay in office while also extending the length of each House term.
“I just think it would be a great opportunity for new approaches and a perspective that might be very different than what’s there without it,” Goode said.
His effort reawakens an issue that has lay dormant since the 1990s, when Republicans pushed for a constitutional amendment and states tried to pass laws for both the local and federal legislatures. But Goode will likely have trouble gaining support this time around: Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) introduced a similar bill in January that hasn’t gathered any steam. Neither the Democratic majority nor the Republican minority has made term limits a priority — in the past, the issue has simply met with too much controversy and resistance.
Goode introduced the amendment as a reaction to political scientist Larry Sabato’s book “A More Perfect Constitution,” which outlines ideas for changing the Constitution to create a fairer government. But he hasn’t yet spoken to any of his peers about it or attempted to gather support.
The issue attracts controversy. Those who support such a limit say it would curb an insider culture, while those against it say voters already impose term limits on their own representatives. Even those in the same camp are split. U.S. Term Limits, an organization that supports limits for state and federal legislatures, pushes for six-year limits, while Goode’s bill extends that to 12 years.
That difference means the group won’t be supporting Goode’s bill, said Ray Wotring, USTL’s director of government affairs.
“Twelve years is way too long,” he said. “Ideally six years or three terms is all they need. After that it becomes too much of an insider game.”
The issue is further complicated by the fact that term limits can be changed only by a constitutional amendment. A 1995 Supreme Court decision found that voters couldn’t limit the terms of their own House Members, halting a tactic favored by USTL. Limiting the term limits of state lawmakers is easier; 15 states currently have such limits, mostly because those states allowed such changes through ballot initiatives, according to USTL.
Goode’s bill goes beyond just term limits. It also extends terms in the House to four years. That way, Goode said, campaigns and fundraising won’t be so all-encompassing. With two-year terms, House Members are forced to prepare for their next election the minute they step into office, he said.
“It’s almost a constant campaign and constant fundraising,” he said. “If you had a term limit and you had the term of four years, a House Member could focus on three elections max and the Senate two elections max. I think it would maybe put somewhat less emphasis on constant fundraising.”
But Common Cause, a nonpartisan group that promotes open government, argues that those issues are unexamined. The group hasn’t looked at the issue, said spokeswoman Mary Boyle, but it raises “the question of how this is going to affect campaign style and fundraising” at a time when issues such as public-financed campaigns are being debated.
The group also has historically argued that the government shouldn’t impose a term limit when voters decide each Member’s tenure at every election.
“Our thinking is that voters are in the best position to decide who returns to Congress,” Boyle said. “They are the local people, and it is their Member of Congress.”
And Goode isn’t about to self-impose a limit before his voters do. Although he wants everyone in Congress to leave after 12 years, he’s not promising to retire when his dozen years are up in 2009. Single states shouldn’t be deprived of the bonuses of a Member with seniority unless everyone is adhering to the same limit, he said.
“I’m not walking down the aisle by myself,” he said.