One Last Lesson From the Greeks: Congressional Term Limits

Shameen Abubakar ‘17

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Despite stealing Greece’s architecture, forms of government, and yogurt, the United States of America did withhold from adopting one ancient Greek custom: government term limits.

Even back in 300 B.C., when the wheel was as fascinating as an iPhone 7, Grecians practiced the principle of an annually rotating council. Of course, we appreciate the evolution of some of the antiquated Athenian traditions, but most Ridge students and three-quarters of the public, according to a Gallup poll [1], agree that congressional term limits are not one of them.

For those scratching their heads, wondering what I mean when I mention congressional term limits, let me give a relative example. Similar to the way the President is limited to only two terms of four years in office, the majority wants to implement similar restrictions on Congress members. In the past, 23 states have placed some kind of amendment or legislation in place in order to limit Congress members’ terms. Unfortunately, both the Arkansas Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court declared these amendments unconstitutional in the case U.S. Term Limits Inc. v. Thornton [2].

Accordingly, the Constitution does not allow further limitations or requirements for Congress members besides the fact that the member must be a certain age and have lived in the United States for a certain amount of time, depending on whether they sit in the House or the Senate. The question remains: if people are so upset that the same representatives are being elected, why don’t they simply elect new ones? If 75% of the population agrees that they wish to see new faces in government, why don’t the congressional elections reflect that?

The incumbency advantage plays a major role: those currently holding office tend to have an advantage in an election over any newcomer opponent because of name recognition, influence, and money. For example, in the 2012 election, Barack Obama had the advantage of being President at the time, which made him familiar to voters and gave him more access to free media. The media would cover anything Obama did because he was the President of the United States, whereas the actions of his opponent, Mitt Romney, needed to be incredibly significant to gain free media attention.

Furthermore, when faced with a ballot, a voter will most probably pick the familiar name over the name they have never heard of before. For example, most people in the seventh New Jersey Congressional District have heard of Leonard Lance but not of his Democratic opponent in this election, Peter Jacob. Unsurprisingly, Leonard Lance won yet again. Devon McKeon ‘17 thinks “name recognition plays too big a role in congressional elections. With even less active voters participating in these non-presidential elections to begin with, these voters tend to select candidates whom they recognize, regardless of their policies or views.”

McKeon shares the sentiment of most students at Ridge High School who feel that term limits would open Congress to newer ideas that would help our country progress. She also brings up an important factor: voter turnout for Congressional elections is extremely low at only 36%, the lowest in 70 years, according to CNN [3]. As much importance as we give to the presidential election, congressional elections can play an even larger role in the fate of our country.

Emily Kopchains ‘17 agrees with this sentiment: “[Congress has] just as much influence as the president in the greater decisions that affect our country, and the more variety of people coming in and out of Congress, the better representation of our country it provides.”

Kopchains brings up another great point: diversity. We live in a demographically changing country and a lot of Ridge students feel that a Congress with term limits better reflects this change.

Michael Lavy ‘17 thinks that “term limits would enable new people with diverse perspectives to enter the political realm more successfully and the increased diversity would be good for the country.”

The average member of Congress is 59 years old, white, and male. For a country with millennials as the largest living generation, according to PEW Research Center, this does not sit well. The 114th Congress carries the most diversity a Congress has ever had, but is still disproportionate to the actual level of diversity in our country. Students at Ridge seem to associate this lack of diversity with the lack of term limitations: Daanyal Farooqi ’17 blames the current system for allowing “power to stay concentrated in a set group of people with very little transitions of power. This all works to further perpetuate the dysfunction of Congress.” Farooqi joins the 89% of Americans who disapprove of Congress.

Overall, Ridge High School students share a public sentiment: wanting to see a change in our Congress. Perhaps it’s time to take a step back and learn from our old friends from Athens.


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