Updated June 4, 1998
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Term Limits for Members of Congress:
Sula P. Richardson
Analyst in American National Government
In 1990, term limit advocates began their campaign to limit congressional terms
by changing state laws, amending state constitutions, and passing state ballot initiatives,
rather than by amending the U.S. Constitution. Their strategy was to circumvent the
more difficult and time consuming amendment process at the federal level and go
directly to the voters and legislatures of each state. By mid-1995, voters or legislatures
in 23 states had approved congressional term limits. In 1995, however, the U.S.
Supreme Court ruled that state-imposed limits on congressional tenure violate the
Constitution and that term limits can only be set through passage and ratification of an
amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Since then, term limit supporters have pressed
Congress to propose a constitutional amendment and encouraged state legislatures to
pass resolutions calling on Congress to propose a constitutional amendment. Since the
1996 general election, some proponents of a national constitutional convention to
consider term limits have redirected their activities toward pressing Congress to propose
an amendment limiting House Members to three terms (6 years) and Senate Members
to two terms (12 years). Some term limit advocates are also working to elect more
candidates who pledge to limit themselves to three House terms and two Senate terms.
Proponents contend that term limits would beneficially increase membership
turnover and ensure a constant influx of new Members; that they would partially offset
incumbents’ built-in advantages and promote competitiveness in congressional elections;
and that they would enhance the role of merit rather than seniority in the distribution of
power. Opponents argue that term limits would infringe on citizens’ right to determine
who serves and for how long, remove many of the most competent and experienced
Members from office prematurely, and result in a shift of power from the legislative
branch to the executive branch, lobbyists, and congressional staff.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Proponents and opponents of term limits have sought support for their respective
positions since the mid-1970s when the recurring debate on congressional terms of office
began to shift from length of term to length of service. Initially, term limit advocates
sought to attain their goal by amending the U.S. Constitution. In 1990, however, they
began concentrating on electoral and legislative processes at the state level (i.e., state
initiatives and laws). Their objective was to bypass the cumbersome amendment process
at the federal level and take the term limits issue directly to the voters by means of ballot
1990-1995: Maximum Service and Ballot Access Laws
From 1990 through mid-1995, voters in Arkansas and 20 other states passed ballot
initiatives that would have amended their state constitutions or changed state laws to limit
the tenure of their Members of Congress.1 Although the measures differed in their details,
most fell into one of two broad categories: (1) specifying a maximum number of terms
(or years) that Members would be allowed to serve, either consecutively or within a
specified period; or (2) prohibiting a candidate’s name from appearing on the ballot if he
or she had served beyond a specified period or had been elected more than a specified
number of times. Measures of the latter type, called “ballot access proposals,” were part
of a strategy term limit advocates adopted in an effort to deflect constitutional challenges.
The strategy of state-imposed limits on congressional tenure raised a number of legal
and constitutional questions, one of which was whether a state had the constitutional
authority to limit the tenure of its Members of Congress. On May 22, 1995, the U.S.
Supreme Court, in a 5 to 4 decision, struck down Arkansas’ state-imposed congressional
term limits as unconstitutional.2 This effectively overturned the proposals in the other 22
states (20 states where voters had passed initiatives and two states where the legislature
had passed congressional term limits).
1996: Informed Voter Laws, Voter Compliance Laws,
and Voter Accountability Laws
Some political observers believed that the Thornton decision would end the effort
of term limit proponents to use the initiative process as part of their strategy to attain
congressional term limits. They were wrong. Proponents circulated petitions to place
another round of term limit initiatives on the 1996 ballot. These initiatives, known as
The other states are AK, AZ, CA, CO, FL, ID, ME, MA, MI, MO, MT, NE, NV, ND, OH, OK,
OR, SD, WA, and WY. The legislature in New Hampshire and Utah passed measures limiting
the tenure of their Members of Congress. As a result, a total of 23 states had passed
congressional term limits in some form.
(U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton [Sup. Ct. Doc. No. 93-1456]). See also U.S. Library of
Congress, Congressional Research Service, The Unconstitutionality of State Congressional Term
Limits: An Overview of U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton (Sup. Ct. Doc. No. 93-1456), by Thomas
M. Durbin, CRS report 95-646 A, (Washington: May 31, 1995). 3 p.
“informed voter laws,” “voter compliance laws,” or “voter accountability laws” contained
such provisions as the following:
The state’s congressional delegation would be instructed to support a particular
constitutional amendment limiting House Members to three terms (six years)
and Senators to two terms (12 years)—and no other version of term limits.
If Congress failed to pass the measure, those who voted against it would have
printed beside their names on ballots in subsequent elections some variation of
the words, “disregarded, failed to comply with, or violated voter instructions
on term limits.”
Non-incumbent candidates for Congress would be offered the opportunity to
sign a “term-limits pledge” or the phrase, “declined to take pledge to support
term limits” would be printed beside their names on ballots.
The state’s Secretary of State would be directed to determine which candidates
and legislators were to have these statements printed beside their names.
Candidates and legislators could appeal the state’s secretary of state’s decision
to the State Supreme Court.
Some opponents and political observers dubbed these measures “scarlet letter laws”
because of the ballot notations. Initiatives of this type were on the November 5, 1996,
ballot in 14 states: AK, AR, CO, ID, ME, MO, MT, NE, NV, ND, OR, SD, WA, and
WY.3 Voters approved the measures in nine states: AK, AR, CO, ID, ME, MO, NE, NV,
and SD. In nearly every state where passed, the initiative was challenged in the courts.
(See table 1.)
On February 12, 1997, the House debated and voted on 11 versions of a proposed
constitutional amendment to limit congressional terms (i.e., H.J.Res. 2 and 10
amendments in the nature of substitutes). Seven of the 11 proposals had been passed by
voters as ballot initiatives in AR, CO, ID, MO, NE, NV, and SD. Six of these seven were
essentially the same, with only minor technical variations, such as punctuation. However,
in order to avoid the possibility of having the ballot statement (e.g., “disregarded voter
instruction on term limits”) beside their names on future ballots, most Members from the
nine states voted solely for the version with the precise language of their state’s law.
Hence, the multiple number of virtually identical measures, and the resulting splintering
of votes. None of the 11 versions received the two-thirds majority needed for passage.
Since then, the courts have invalidated these "informed voter laws" in nearly all of the
states where they were passed (see table 1).
Voters in California passed an "informed voter" initiative on June 2, 1998. This
measure declares it the official position of the state that its elected officials should vote
to help enact a constitutional amendment limiting congressional terms to three in the
House and two in the Senate. It requires federal and state legislators to use their power
Only in Missouri and South Dakota, the initiative applies solely to federal legislators and
candidates for Congress rather than state and federal lawmakers and candidates.
to pass the amendment, and it provides that candidates for federal and state legislative
office who do not support the measure be so identified on subsequent ballots.
1998: Term Limits Pledge Laws and Term Limits Declarations
Now that the courts have invalidated “informed voter laws” in most of the states
where they were passed, some term limit proponents are working to place on the 1998
ballot another round of initiatives called “term limits pledge laws” or “the Term Limits
Declaration.” Under these measures:
candidates for U.S. Congress would be permitted but not required to file a
statement with the (state) Secretary of State pledging to serve no more than
three terms in the House and two terms in the Senate;
the state’s Secretary of State would be authorized to notify voters of the
candidate’s pledge using the ballot notation “voluntarily pledges to serve no
more than 3 terms” (for House Members) or “voluntarily pledges to serve no
more than 2 terms” (for Senate Members);
the state’s Secretary of State would be further authorized to notify voters of
candidates who took but failed to honor the pledge, by inserting “broke term
limits pledge” beside the candidate's name on every primary, special, and
general election ballot.
In Alaska, a "term limits pledge" initiative has qualified for placement on the 1998 ballot.
Efforts are underway to place “term limits pledge” initiatives on the ballot in several
other states (e.g., Colorado, Idaho, and Montana).
Some term limit supporters had been campaigning for a national constitutional
convention through the initiative process. In several states, they conducted petition drives
to place initiatives on the 1996 ballot instructing state legislators to vote for application
to Congress for a constitutional convention to consider a term limit amendment. This
approach led to the reemergence of a number of such crucial questions as whether the
convention can be limited to a single subject. If not, a “run away convention” might
propose any number of amendments or a totally new constitution.
Initiatives that instructed state legislators to vote for application to Congress for a
constitutional convention to consider a term limit amendment were on the 1996 ballot in
11 states.4 If a state legislature failed to pass the measure, dissenting legislators would
have a statement printed beside their names on ballots in subsequent elections, indicating
their failure to comply with voter instruction on term limits. Such initiatives were on the
In most of the states, these same ballot initiatives also instructed federal and state legislators to
support congressional term limits, as described earlier (see “informed voter laws”). Some
political observers believe that in some states where the initiative failed, it was because a number
of voters, who supported term limits did not support a constitutional convention as the vehicle
1996 ballot in AK, AR, CO, ID, ME, MT, NE, NV, OR, WA, and WY. In addition, an
initiative in North Dakota would have provided that the people of that state act as the state
legislature for the sole purpose of applying to Congress to call a constitutional convention
to consider a term limits amendment. Voters in AK, AR, CO, ID, ME, NE, and NV
approved initiatives calling for a constitutional convention. The Arkansas initiative was
challenged in the courts. On February 24, 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition
for certiorari concerning the constitutionality of this initiative, thus letting stand a ruling
by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which had struck down the Arkansas initiative.
According to a term limits activist, “the next battery of  initiatives will not
include the requirement to apply for a ‘convention to propose amendments.’ The term
limits movement believes that the ballot working alone can put enough pressure on
Congress to force them to act.”5
Earlier this century, increasing support for a national constitutional convention
helped proponents of direct election of Senators convince Congress to propose the 17th
Amendment.6 In the early 1900s, an increasing number of state legislatures were calling
for a constitutional convention to propose an amendment providing for the election of
Senators by popular vote. In 1910, a Senator who had proposed such an amendment
claimed that 33 state legislatures supported his proposal “in substance if not in exact
phraseology.”7 By 1911, another Member said that 19 states had formally petitioned
Congress to call a constitutional convention.8 Faced with increasing support for a
constitutional convention, most Members (including some who opposed direct election)
chose to propose a definitive amendment rather than risk the uncertainties a national
convention might pose. The Senate debated and passed an amendment providing for the
direct election of Senators on June 12, 1911 (64 to 24). The House concurred in the
Senate version on May 13, 1912 (238 to 39). On May 31, 1913, the Secretary of State
proclaimed the 17th Amendment ratified by 36 of the 48 states.
Legislation Proposed in the State Legislatures
The legislatures of three states—ID, SD, and UT—have passed proposals for either
a constitutional convention or Congress to propose a constitutional amendment to limit
congressional tenure. During the 1997 and 1998 state legislative sessions, various
proposals have ranged from expressing support for congressional term limits to proposing
an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The state legislature in South Dakota passed
legislation repealing the ballot initiative (“informed voter law”) that voters passed on
November 5, 1996. Proponents circulated a referendum petition and collected signatures
in an effort to stay the legislature’s repeal and reinstate the law (see Table 1).
Prior to the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913, state legislatures elected U.S. Senators.
Colorado Term Limit Coalition. Letter from Dennis Polhill.
cotermlim/Polhill4Feb97.html, visited May 13, 1997.
Joseph L. Bristow. “Election of Senators by direct vote,” remarks in the Senate, Congressional
Record, vol. 45, June 18, 1910. p. 8454.
“Election of Senators by Direct Vote,” debate in the Senate. In: remarks of Mr. Heyburn,
Congressional Record, vol. 47, May 24, 1911. p. 1539. (Mr. Heyburn opposed the election of
U.S. Senators by popular vote.)
Table 1. Congressional Term Limit Initiatives on State Ballots in 1996a
Ballot Measure No. 4
11/05/96: Voters passed measure.
Amendment No. 12
01/ /98: State Supreme Court
08/07/97: State Supreme Court
partially invalidated measure.d
05/15/97: Federal District Court
invalidated measure. Appeal filed
but subsequently withdrawn by
Constitutional Amendment No. 9
02/ /98: Federal District Court
Initiative Petition Measure 409
05/ /97: Federal District Court's
preliminary injunction barred the
state from enforcing the measure.
01/16/98: Federal District Court's
final ruling upheld the earlier
11/5/07: Voters passed the
measure; must be passed again in
1998 to become law.
Initiated Measure 1
03/ /98: Federal District Court
invalidated the initiative.f
a. Information is necessarily summarized. Consult the full text of all measures for further detail. For example, the
full text of all of the measures stipulates legislators and candidates support an amendment prescribing limits of
three House terms (6 years) and 2 Senate terms (12 years).
b. Refers to the number used to identify the proposal on the ballot.
c. On October 21, 1996, the Arkansas Supreme Court had struck down this initiative and had ordered the secretary
of state not to count the votes on it. On November 2, 1996, however, the U.S. Supreme Court suspended the State
Supreme Court order and allowed votes on Amendment 9 to be counted. The U.S. Supreme Court did not rule on
the initiative’s constitutionality. Later (February 24, 1997), the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition for certiorari
concerning this initiative’s constitutionality, thus letting stand the ruling by the Arkansas Supreme Court.
d. The Court struck down a provision of the initiative that would have required legislators to sign a pledge supporting
congressional term limits or have the statement, “disregarded voters’ instructions on term limits” beside their names
on subsequent election ballots. The Court did not invalidate the part of the initiative that requires legislators to call
for a constitutional convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to limit congressional terms.
e. There were two separate term-limit initiatives in Missouri. One would instruct state legislators the other, federal
legislators. The former was challenged on the basis of the number of signatures; it was not on the 1996 ballot.
The latter (Amendment 9) qualified for the 1996 ballot.
f. Voters passed the initiative on November 5, 1996. In February and March 1997, the state legislature passed and
the Governor signed legislation repealing the initiative. Term limit proponents circulated a referendum petition
to stay the repealing legislation and to reinstate the initiative. The requisite number of signatures was attained on
June 19, 1997. Consequently, the legislation repealing the initiative was not to go into effect and the initiative
was to remain in force until 1998, when voters would approve or reject a referendum on the repealing legislation.
In March 1998, however, a Federal District Court ruled the initiative unconstitutional.