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term limits

term limits, statutory limitations placed on the number of terms officeholders may serve. Focusing especially on members of the U.S. Congress, term limits became an important national political issue during the late 1980s and early 90s and have been vigorously debated. Proponents, who include a large cross section of the American public, feel that a limitation on the period of time a politician may hold office reduces abuses of power and the concentration on reelection by entrenched incumbents, encourages political participation by nonpoliticians, and makes government more responsive to public needs. Opponents maintain that elections already serve as a built-in way of providing term limits, feel that such limits are unconstitutional and undemocratic, and cite the benefits of seniority and of the experience conferred by years in office. Many proponents have called for a constitutional amendment similar to the 22d Amendment (1951), which limits the president's tenure, to set national term limits.

Gubernatorial term limits are the oldest and most common U.S. limitation on officeholding. As early as 1787 the Delaware constitution established a two-term limit for the governor, and nearly four fifths of the states now place some sort of restriction on the number of terms for which an individual may hold the governorship. Legislative term limits are of more recent origin. From 1990 to 2000 a total of 19 states set term limits for state legislators, to take effect variously between 1996 and 2008. Terms limits on state legislators were subsequently overturned (for technical reasons) in Oregon, and repealed by the legislature in Idaho. Twenty-one states approved term limits on members of the U.S. Congress. State term limits on federal legislators were challenged in the courts, and in 1995 the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly ruled that states could not impose them and only a constitutional amendment could assure them. In the 1994 elections Republicans promised a vote on congressional term limits during their successful campaign to win control of Congress, but a constitutional amendment failed to win the necessary votes in 1995. That year, both the Senate and the House officially opposed legislation mandating term limits for their members, and in 1997 the House rejected a constitutional amendment requiring term limits. In addition to the presidential and various state term limits, term limits have also been established for many municipal and other local offices.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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