Term Limits Won't Fix Congress — Here's What Might : The NPR Politics Podcast The idea of term limiting congressional representatives tends to poll well, but — in practice — the idea probably wouldn't reduce extreme partisanship or curb outside influence. But there are some ideas, like multi-member districts and reforms to primary elections, that could make a big difference.

This episode: congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, voting correspondent Ashley Lopez and senior political editor and correspondent Ron Elving.

The podcast is produced by Casey Morell and Elena Moore. Our editor is Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi.

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Term Limits Won't Fix Congress — Here's What Might

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ALI: Hello. This is Ali (ph) in Chicago, where I am feverishly trying to finish my Halloween costume. This year. I'm going as the one and only Dolly Parton. I am attempting to recreate the dress she wore for the premiere of "9 To 5." This podcast was recorded at...


1:06 p.m. on Monday, October 30.

ALI: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, but hopefully I will have finished this dress and made Dolly proud. OK. Here's the show.


SNELL: Oh, she's so good. I was going to ask. That was going to be my question. Is she sewing? Is she gluing? How are we making this outfit?

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: That's a great costume.

SNELL: Yeah. I really want to see photos, so please send us pictures when you are done with that (laughter). All right. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

LOPEZ: I'm Ashley Lopez. I cover voting,

RON ELVING, BYLINE: And I'm Ron Elving, editor correspondent.

SNELL: On the show today, we are going to talk about term limits on congressional candidates, which is a popular idea among voters, but one that doesn't quite tackle the issues that people think they want it to solve. But first, a goodbye from the campaign trail.


SNELL: Mike Pence, the former vice president to former President Donald Trump, has suspended his presidential campaign, and we are here to memorialize that with our royalty free music and our way of saying goodbye (laughter).

LOPEZ: So dramatic.

SNELL: This is actually - very dramatic. But this is kind of a turning point, right? Because Pence is one of the highest profile people we've seen drop out. You know, he made it official this weekend in a speech at the Republican Jewish Coalition Summit in Las Vegas. So while he was on the campaign trail, just to remind people, he cast himself as kind of an old-school social conservative who was committed to the rule of law. He was also a clear combatant to his former running mate, saying that his campaign, Pence's campaign, was about standing up for the integrity of the democracy. So I'm wondering if you guys have any thoughts on why he failed to connect, why we are seeing him drop out this early in the process.

ELVING: He had lost his connection to the people who were his value when he was added to the ticket in 2016 by Donald Trump. Donald Trump needed a show of faith with the evangelical portion of the Republican base, and Mike Pence had the best credentials in that area you could possibly have. He was very well-known in that community and trusted. So the fact that he was willing to be on that ticket with Donald Trump was a real endorsement at the time. But they were not a close working relationship through four years.

And then, of course, at the end, when told that he had to, well, in the view of constitutional scholars, defy the Constitution and not fulfill his role in certifying the legitimate results of the 2020 election, Mike Pence rebelled against doing that, and at that point set himself apart from Donald Trump and at odds with much of Donald Trump's inspired base, including - and this is ironic - perhaps those evangelicals that he was added to the ticket to appeal to back in 2016.

LOPEZ: Yeah. And to be quite honest, like, old-school conservatism, the brand of Republican politics that Pence was, you know, selling is not something that Republican voters, especially in primaries, have been buying for a long time. I mean, just ask Jeb Bush, right? Like, since Donald Trump has been on the scene, this has not been a brand that is popular with primary voters. And, you know, the sliver of Republican voters who, you know, want to see an alternative to Trump, you know, it's not like it's a small sliver, but there's a lot of competition for it, right? This is a very crowded primary. And Pence was just, like, not able to break through in any meaningful way. So, I mean, in a way, this is not that surprising, even though he is the former vice president and, you know, you would assume he would do better in a contest like this. But yeah, it just didn't work out for him.

SNELL: Yeah. We did see that former President Trump, his response to all this was that he thought Mike Pence should endorse him, but that he did not necessarily expect that that would happen. He talked about loyalty and talked about disloyalty in the Republican field. So we'll wait and see who Pence endorses down the line (laughter). But on the subject at hand, Ashley, you took a look at congressional term limits for a recent story. And the idea tends to be popular because folks don't tend to like Congress. So what are these term limits actually meant to solve?

LOPEZ: Well, the bigger thing is getting rid of people you don't like, right? So something like - the Congress has like a 13% approval rating. So, you know, I wasn't really surprised to find that when the Pew Research Center released some survey this summer, that 87% of Americans said they want to see hard caps on how long members of Congress can be in office. And, you know, one of the big things, you know, the supporters of term limits say this will solve is something called an incumbency advantage. It's kind of what it sounds like. It's just that if you've been in office, you have some inherent advantages when you run again. Name recognition is a big one but also just, like, having, you know, sort of a set donor base, blah, blah, blah.

And what we've seen is that the incumbency advantage is pretty strong in Congress. Something like 97% of incumbents got reelected last election even though they're not very popular. And, like, so that broke down to, like, 95% of people in the House. And a hundred percent of the Senate got reelected in 2022. And, you know, there's also this very real frustration with the amount of time that members of Congress spend raising money. I think people would be surprised to - you know, to see how often, you know, members of Congress are on the phone, asking for money. And one of the arguments is that if you said...

SNELL: Oh, it's, like, a huge part of their job.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

SNELL: I think that that's something we should pause on that really fast...

LOPEZ: Yeah.

SNELL: ...Because this is, like, a whole thing. Call time, leaving the hill to go to special places to raise money is a part of their daily job.

LOPEZ: Yeah. And I think, like, supporters of term limits would say people would be pretty shocked to see, like, what a big part of, like, their agenda that is every day. And the argument is - it's like you set a hard cap on how many times someone can run. You at least get, like, one term from them where their focus is not on raising money and is instead on serving their constituents. And also, the argument is because they - you know, these lawmakers wouldn't have to run again is that they would be more beholden to their constituents over their party, which they say could be, like, one way to address political polarization in Congress. And I should say these are just, like, the theories of the case of why term limits would be helpful in solving these bigger political issues in America. But we could talk more about, like, whether that actually, like, turns out that way.

SNELL: You know, Ron, one thing you often hear when people are talking about term limits is that you can get somebody out of office by just showing up and voting them out. I mean, is that a good argument, or is there a reason why even some members of Congress themselves are promising term limits?

ELVING: If there were a serious movement behind term limits, it might take the form of trying to organize people to run against incumbents, either in a primary or in November. But as we've already pointed out, that just doesn't happen very much. It's just - it's a bad bet. It's historically difficult to defeat anybody in office. So, you know, whether you're running against them in the primary in your own party or you're running against them in November, that's just not the time to run. And it's hard to find people to do it.

So that's tough. But if you put it on a questionnaire and say, hey; would you like to see term limits or shorter terms for members of Congress, it's probably always going to get a big majority. It's a kind of fool's gold because, you know, it's probably not going to happen. Congress itself had a shot back in the '90s. It was part of the Contract with America that came in with the class of 1994. They pressed almost everything on that contract but not term limits. It was in the form of a constitutional amendment, didn't get anywhere close to two-thirds of the House's support. And the Senate, of course, had no use for it ever.

SNELL: You know, one of the things that comes up when I've talked to people about term limits is this idea that there are actual reasons why you would want someone to stick around in Congress longer than a couple of terms. Like, there are actual, functional reasons that the work of Congress is better done by people with experience. Can you talk about that?

ELVING: I think what happened back in the '90s, when there was all this enthusiasm - they didn't quite get it done as a constitutional amendment. But the members who said they would only serve for three terms in the House, maybe two more terms in the Senate. Those people got to their self-imposed limit and said, hey, folks. If you'll give me another couple of years, I might be doing more of the things you really want me to do and the things I promised to do that I haven't been able to do thus far because I've learned while I've been here in Congress how much depends on seniority and how much it takes cumulative time to get anything done.

Well, of course, those were the arguments against term limits in the first place, and most of those people who changed their minds and ran again got reelected for all the reasons that we've talked about. So, you know, in practical terms, it really empowers the permanent people of Washington - the staffs, the lobbyists, the executive branch. Those people are going to have more power if Congress limits the terms of its members so that they individually have less.

LOPEZ: Well, Ron is absolutely right about this. And I would say this is the key critique of term limits. For one, like, there's not a degree, a training program that you can go to to learn how to be a legislator, especially a member of Congress. Like, where do you gain those skills except for doing the job? And it takes a lot of time to learn how this - you know, this big operation works and how to be useful, where you're useful, what you're good at, what role you should play in your party or in the Congress. Like, that just takes a lot of time.

Opponents of term limits say when you impose these hard caps, you're kind of kicking someone out when they have - when they're at the height of their institutional knowledge and their usefulness to voters, when they're the most effective. And so, you know, they're kicked out of office, and they take that policy expertise and that very useful institutional knowledge with them. And then, you know, if you have - like, there are 16 states that have term limits. And what you often find in those states is, you know, when you have a lot of newbie lawmakers but a lot of lobbyists with institutional knowledge, they tend to have a lot more power than they would otherwise because they're - they just know more. They know how things work and they know how to get things done more than, you know, someone who's been in, you know, a state House for maybe three years.

SNELL: You know, there are also some pretty complex legal and process reasons...

LOPEZ: Yeah.

SNELL: ...That these might be difficult to implement. Can you tell me about that?

LOPEZ: Right. So, you know, first of all, as Ron mentioned, like, the Congress has debated whether to impose term limits on themselves and putting restrictions on yourself. Like, it's just, like, a harder climb for everyone to decide, hey, you know what?

SNELL: It's very hard to volunteer to stop doing something that gives you power (laughter).

LOPEZ: Yeah. And then the other part of it is, like, in the '90s, the Supreme Court, they wrote an opinion about this and said that it might actually be unconstitutional for Congress to set these terms - these limits on themselves. And so it might have to go to a constitutional amendment, which is a very difficult mountain to climb. That is a - that is probably one of the hardest sort of political projects that you could undertake. So, you know, it's - you know, besides it being popular, maybe part of the reason why it is popular is 'cause it's a little pie in the sky, at least it has been for a very long time.

SNELL: All right, time for a quick break and more on that in a second.

And we're back. There are some things that could really help address the increasing partisanship and this kind of feeling that politics is a team sport, that feeling that voters really hate. Ron, can you explain what those things are?

ELVING: One thing that could be done would be to go back into the basic structure of Congress - and this could all be done by law; it does not need to be a constitutional amendment - and redefine how you choose members from a particular state. Now, for a very long time, most states have been electing people by dividing the state up into districts and having a district for each of the seats that state is entitled to in the House of Representatives.

So, for example, you have some states with just one or two or three, and then you have the megastates, the top 10 population states, that have, you know, many. If you were to divide them up a little differently - instead of one member, one district, what if you were to make the districts larger so that they took in three times as many people but you also had them elect three members? You would wind up with the same number of people in Congress, but the dynamic of the election would be very different. And among other things, it would encourage the development of third and fourth and fifth parties.

And here's how it would work. You would have three seats to fill. You'd have an election. And instead of having a choice between one Republican and one Democrat - and, in most districts, that's going to be pretty automatically one or the other - one of the - either the Republican or the Democrat. Instead, you would have a long list to choose among. You could have ranked-choice voting, and you could take the top three and say, now you are all members of Congress. And in almost every district in the country, at least one of those people is going to be of a different party from the other two.

SNELL: How often are states even taking up this option?

ELVING: Well, there are states that elect the lower chamber of their state legislature this way, and there were many states that did it at the beginning because in the early years of the republic, it was quite common for a state to have either statewide representation or just a single member of Congress. So it does take a little bit of explanation, like any kind of ranked-choice voting does, but it does offer the possibility for people who currently feel totally disenfranchised - say, a Republican in California - their vote is going to be pointless in the presidential election, they believe, and their vote is going to be pointless voting for Congress because the top two finishers in California are both going to probably be Democrats. But if there were a third, that person would certainly be a Republican and maybe even the second and third.

So if you enlarge the size of the districts, you don't even have to increase the size of Congress. But you could also do that, of course. That, too, could be done by federal law. That would add variety. It would give everybody in the country a reasonable chance of seeing somebody who they feel better about - either because they're Republican or Democrat or some third or fourth party - feel better about and have real choice every two years in choosing Congress.

SNELL: All right. Well, given that that would take changes - you know, in many of these options that you're talking about - changes to federal law. And we've seen that Congress can't really even agree to keep the lights on for the federal government. Ashley, what are some less dramatic, maybe less complicated ways to make changes that could make a difference here?

LOPEZ: There is the option of focusing on how primaries are structured, right? Because states run those elections anyway, so it wouldn't really require a big federal lift. And there are already five states that run what is called nonpartisan primaries. Most of the country runs partisan primaries, right? Not are all closed, but at least the parties themselves, you know, sort of unofficially run the primaries, even though public elected officials actually do the work of administrating elections. And that's, like, a whole other complicated thing. But in nonpartisan systems, all candidates from all parties are listed on the same ballot, and voters can vote for whatever candidate they want, regardless of party. And, you know, depending where you live, like California and Washington, it'd be a top two - like what, you know, Ron was talking about - or a top four, which is in Alaska.

But, you know, these have proven to at least change, in the states where they exist, how people run - right? - and also just the sort of - the nature of the elections that take place there. In a state like California, like, obviously, if you have winner-take-all, two-party elections, like, it is - you know, Republicans aren't going to - haven't had a - don't have a big say typically in those kind of elections. But if you have a Democrat versus a Democrat, you know, on the same ballot, like, you know, it will be more competitive than otherwise. So - and as I mentioned, it also changed the way people run because they do have to appeal to basically everyone who's going to be voting in that primary.

ELVING: That's right. And that's what breaks what has been called the two-party doom loop. That's a term I'm borrowing from Lee Drutman, who's a political scientist at New America. And he has written a whole book about ways to get away from this duopoly, as some people have called it, this absolute lock that Republicans have on their districts and Democrats have on their districts. And you're dividing the whole country into two armed camps, in essence.

SNELL: Well, I guess my question is, does it seem like any of these options are picking up steam? Is there any sign that there might be some of these changes coming down the pike, or is this, just like we've seen in the past, like you mentioned, Ron, a conversation that kind of fizzles out?

ELVING: We do see a lot of dissatisfaction with Congress, and it isn't just the three weeks that it took the Republicans to choose a new speaker after ousting the guy they had. It's about the frustration that people have with how nothing seems to change in quite the way that people want it to change. People don't feel like they're voting for what they want, and they certainly don't feel like they're getting what they want.

LOPEZ: In the primary space, this is a conversation that frustrates people from both parties. You know, when I did reporting on nonpartisan primaries, I was surprised to find how many people who work in the reform space were talking to lawmakers in both parties because this is a problem that both sides want to solve. And I think wherever there is sort of bipartisan buy-in, it's going to be a little easier to solve the problem.

Now, the specific form that primary reform will take is going to be different depending on, you know, who has power in what state. But I - you know, it's just five states now. But I will say, I think this is a part of, like, electoral politics where there's maybe a little more political will to change. And I think reformists in this space say that they're a little more hopeful when it comes to primary reform versus, like, sort of other big changes that, I guess, democratic activists - and that's lower-d democratic activists - have been seeking for the past few years.

SNELL: All right. Let's leave it there for today. I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

LOPEZ: I'm Ashley Lopez. I cover voting.

ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, editor correspondent.

SNELL: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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