By John Celock
A national group is pushing for states to call a constitutional convention in order to term limit Congress.
U.S. Term Limits is pushing for resolutions in 12 states next year in an effort to call an Article V convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to limit congressional terms. The group is one of several nationally that are seeking to call the first ever convention since 1787 through the Article V process. This is one of the first concentrated calls to limit congressional service since 23 states passed laws to limit congressional terms, actions, which were later, deemed unconstitutional.
“I believe in the concept of citizen legislators,” Florida state Rep. Larry Metz (R-Lake County), who is sponsoring the Florida resolution, told The Celock Report. “I don’t believe we should have people serving in the U.S. Congress for lifetime careers.”
Nick Tomboulides, the executive director of U.S. Term Limits, told The Celock Report that the organization is seeking the amendment through the Article V process because they do not see Congress voting to limit their own terms. Under the Article V process, two-thirds of the state legislatures, 34 states, would need to petition Congress to call a convention. No Article V convention has been called since the Constitution was written in the 1780s. All constitutional amendments have been passed by first clearing Congress before being ratified by three-quarters of the states.
“That would be like asking a chicken to vote for Colonel Sanders,” Tomboulides said of trying to get the petition passed through Congress.
Under U.S. Term Limits plan, a convention would be called to consider the term limits issue and decide on the language of the proposed amendment. While the group favors a lifetime term limit of three terms in the House of Representatives and two terms in the U.S. Senate, Tomboulides said it would be up to the convention to decide the language of a proposed amendment to send to the states for ratification. The state applications for a term limits convention would not specify the language of a proposed amendment.
In addition to Florida, U.S. Term Limits is seeking Article V resolutions in Colorado, Alabama, Georgia, Alaska, South Dakota, West Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Michigan next year. Tomboulides said the states were picked because several already have term limits in place for state lawmakers. But he noted that not all will be ones where success is guaranteed.
“Some of them have strong records with Article V applications and some have strong records with term limits. We believe that those states have the background to get it in the Legislature. Not all are easy ones,” he said. “We did not want all low hanging fruit. We wanted to prove that since term limits is a concept with broad appeal among Republicans and Democrats, we wanted to prove you can get it done in a Democrat or a Republican state or one with a partisan divide.”
In the 1990s, 23 states passed laws limiting their state’s members of Congress to a specific number of terms. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled these laws unconstitutional, saying that only the Constitution can set qualifications for members of Congress. The states had passed the laws saying that the states are vested with the power to set the election laws to obtain a spot on the ballot to run for Congress.
Multiple states and cities have passed term limits laws for lawmakers, including California, Missouri, Florida, Michigan and New York City. Many of the laws were passed through public referendum and not by the legislative body.
Opponents of term limits have argued that they cause too much turnover in a legislative body and empower lobbyists, staffers and the executive branch bureaucracy more since lawmakers would be turning over regularly. Under California’s original term limits law – which limited state Assembly members to six years and state senators to eight years – Assembly leaders regularly turned over every year or two. When New York City’s term limits law took effect in 2001, all but a handful of City Council members were forced out of office.
Tomboulides disagreed, saying that his group’s studies have shown that lobbyists prefer continuity. Metz said that in his experience, it is up to how the lawmaker behaves, not based on experience.
“I’ve seen both situations and it will be true no matter how long we serve. If the legislator doesn’t take the bull by the horns, the staff will fill the void,” he said. “It is there with long term career politicians, even more so. If they are there long term and want to go along to get along, they will cede that power. Someone who comes in with a term limit and an agenda, they will be more likely to work to get that accomplished.”
Tomboulides also cited the recent corruption conviction of former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side), who served four decades in the Legislature, as part of the case for term limits.
“Political experience is really a double edged sword. When you look to Sheldon Silver, he had 40 years experience in the New York State Assembly, he wasn’t using that to benefit the public, he was using it to line his own pocket,” he said.
New York state Sen. George Amedore (R-Rotterdam) recently proposed limiting Empire State lawmakers to two four-year terms. Amedore’s call came after the recent convictions of both Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) on corruption charges.
Metz said that in his five years in the Florida House, he has seen the term limits law benefit the Legislature. Florida limits lawmakers to eight years in either legislative chamber.
“In the state Legislature, I have seen two new classes come in. I have to tell in my opinion each traded up,” he said. “Not to disparage anyone who left under term limits, the new people brought experience and enthusiasm as strengthened the institution.”
Michigan state Rep. Robert Wittenberg (D-Oak Park) does not agree with the term limits push, noting that voters can already imposes term limits during elections.
“Voters can impose term limits with elections,” Wittenberg said. “But I think committee chairs should be rotated or term limited.”
Congressional Republicans have already imposed three term limits on committee chairs and four term limits on the speaker of the House. Congressional Democrats have debated proposals to limit leadership tenures as well.
Several states have imposed informal leadership term limits but do not have legislative term limits in place. In New Jersey, Democrats have limited the state Assembly speaker to two terms in office since gaining the majority in 2002, while in Kansas; Republicans have also limited the state House speaker to two terms with the gavel.
Several other groups are pushing Article V conventions, including the Convention of States, which is seeking a convention focused on several issues including term limits. The Assembly of State Legislators, a bipartisan group, is seeking a convention focused on campaign finance reform and a balanced budget amendment.
While more than 34 Article V petitions have been submitted in the past, Congress has not called a convention, saying the petitions need to contain the same language. Opponents have said that a convention could decide to go off in areas outside of what is being called for in the organizing petitions. Tomboulides said that he believes that is unlikely since any proposed amendments would still need state ratification. He also noted the petitions have other safeguards built in.
“We think the convention itself is secure. Our applications withdraw state permission for the convention if it discusses anything else besides from term limits,” he said. “You have faithful delegate laws in some states. The ultimate safeguard is ratification.”