WITT: Why can’t we have universal term limits?

Recent national polls indicate 78 percent of respondents support term limits for the Supreme Court, and a 2018 poll showed that 82 percent of the respondents supported term limits for Congress – 86 percent of Republicans, 76 percent of Democrats and 83 percent of independents. 

All federal judicial appointments, including the Supreme Court, are made for life and these should be under consideration as well.

At one time, the president served without term limits, although Franklin Roosevelt was the first and only president to serve more than two terms consecutively and was into his fourth term when he died in 1945.

Grover Cleveland served two terms, but not consecutively. 

It took only six years following the death of Roosevelt to pass the 22nd Amendment limiting presidents to two terms. 

The amendment was approved by the Senate and House in a matter of only five weeks before being submitted to the states for ratification.  That process took another three years. 

Kentucky was not one of the ratifying states and has never officially ratified this amendment.

Representatives and Senators are not subject to term limits.  Oddly, neither is the vice-president.

In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled, in U.S. Term Limits vs. Thornton, that states cannot impose term limits on their federal Representatives or Senators.

So, the only way that term limits could be applied to the House of Representative and the Senate will have to come by way of a Constitutional amendment.  And, as virtually everyone knows, the path to a Constitutional amendment is a difficult one indeed.

At the state level, 23 states impose term limits on governors, although most allow governors to become eligible again after four years out of office, including Kentucky. 

Virginia has a limit of one four-year term with eligibility again after four years.

Eight states impose two terms for life, and 14 states and the District of Columbia allow unlimited terms. 

Twenty-two states have term limits for their legislatures.

By the 1792 Kentucky Constitution, the governor was chosen by an electoral college for a term of four years. 

The 1799 Constitution changed this to a popular vote and prevented governors from succeeding themselves for a period of seven years. 

The 1850 Constitution changed the latter requirement to four years. 

It was not until 1992 that the Kentucky Constitution was amended to allow governors to succeed themselves for one additional term.

There is insufficient space here to delve into all the machinations which resulted in (or failed to result in) term limits within the states, but it is probably not incorrect to infer that legislation regulating terms for elected officers has always been passed (or not passed) in the legislatures and most likely through amendments to the constitutions of the states.

This probably illustrates the reason why there are so few states, localities and Congress itself that impose term limits because who could ever imagine a state legislature or Congress promoting legislation which would erode its own power?

Ideally, and many would argue against this. Term limits should apply to all the judiciary, the Congress, all Governors, all state legislatures and all local offices simply because unlimited access to power too easily leads to corruption and autocracy and is anathema to true democracy.

Some research shows that term limits increase legislative polarization, reduce legislative skills, reduce legislative productivity, weaken legislatures vis-à-vis the executive and reduce voter turnout,and that they have not reduced campaign spending.

No doubt there is research to show exactly the opposite.


Chuck Witt is a retired architect and a lifelong resident of Winchester. He can be reached at chuck740@bellsouth.net.