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The Term-Limit Movement Gathers Steam

THE term-limitation movement faces its greatest challenge this November with as many as 14 states considering initiatives to limit the terms of state and federal legislators. Oklahoma and California passed term-limit initiatives for state legislators in 1990. Colorado voters passed an initiative to limit state and federal lawmakers the same year. An initiative in Washington state to limit both state and federal legislators failed to win approval last fall.

Thus far in 1992, 14 states have filed term-limit petitions for the November ballot, including Arizona, Missouri, Michigan, and Florida, along with a second try in Washington. Petitions are being signed in Idaho and North Dakota, which may soon join this group. Term limits are back on the ballot in California, this time for members of Congress. Five states are working on initiatives for 1994. Every remaining state has some group promoting term-limit legislation or constitutional amendments.

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State initiatives differ as to the length of the limits and as to whether limits last a lifetime or just require a break in legislative service; whether legislative limits are created by adding qualifications for candidate eligibility or restricting access to the ballot; and whether limits are proposed for service in Congress besides service in state legislatures.

Term limits for the lower house of a state legislature typically range from three to four two-year terms and for the upper house from two to three four-year terms. The greatest variation is over the limits on terms proposed for members of the US House of Representatives. These vary from limits of three to six two-year terms. In almost every case, US senators would be limited to two six-year terms.

When it comes to the longevity of term limits, some states, such as Arkansas and Missouri, would impose lifetime limits on service in a particular chamber. After individuals have served out the specified number of terms, they would be prohibited from ever serving in that chamber again. California's Proposition 140, for example, established a lifetime limit on service in the state Assembly after three two-year terms and in the Senate after two four-year terms. Such initiatives do not prevent previous lawm akers from running for other elected offices, however.

But the majority of state initiatives establish systems of rotation in office. Under some initiatives, lawmakers may serve for a specified period of time but must then take a break from service in that legislative chamber, ranging from two to six years, before running for the same office again. Legislators in Washington, for example, may serve for two four-year terms in the state senate and three two-year terms in the state house. But after serving out the limit of terms, a legislator must take a break o f six years before running for the same office again. In some states, initiatives simply would prevent a legislator from serving successive terms past a specified number. Here it is assumed that an incumbent would have to sit out at least one election cycle to be eligible to run again for the same office.

Initiatives propose limiting legislative terms in two different ways. The majority of initiatives amend state constitutions to include a new qualification for legislative candidates regarding prior service in elected office. Candidates who have already served the specified number of terms in a particular chamber are not eligible to run for reelection.

A second way imposes term limits utilizing state authority to regulate access to the ballot. In states like Arizona, Florida, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Washington, initiatives prohibit the name of a candidate who has already served the specified number of terms from appearing on the ballot in future elections for that office. Disqualified people may run as write-in candidates - a proviso designed to avoid constitutional difficulties with adding qualifications to candidates for Congress.

Most state initiatives would take effect immediately, with the term-limit clock ticking from the start of the new legislative session. Previous time in office is not counted; after the defeat of Washington's initiative in 1991, no state initiative applies limits retroactively.

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In a few states proposing congressional term limits, a trigger mechanism is also included in the initiative to prevent it from going into effect until a number of other states have similarly limited congressional terms. Washington state's new initiative has a clause suspending federal limits until nine other states pass congressional term limits; in Missouri, a similar clause suspends federal term limits until half the states pass them. These clauses are a response to voter fears that states with congres sional term limits will be disadvantaged when it comes to seniority and committee chairmanships in Congress, the key to receiving a state's "share" of federal funds.

The fate of the movement to amend the US Constitution to provide for congressional term limits hinges on the outcome of November's elections. These initiatives merit the attention of all citizens committed to the revitalization of representative government in America.

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