Term Limits Defined

ten stop signs
••• Junichi Ishito / Getty Images

Term limits are the restrictions that are placed on how long a particular person can serve in a political office. Term limits can be expressed in the number of terms in office or years of service, and they can also specify whether a person may serve in the same office once term limits have been reached and the individual has laid out of an election cycle. The most well-known term limit that has been defined by the United States constitution is for the office of the presidency as spelled out in the 22nd amendment:

"No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of President more than once."

Why Term Limits​ Are Imposed

Term limits are imposed so that one person cannot hold an office for life and so a variety of people can serve. Proponents of term limits point to lifetime members of Congress as examples of why term limits are preferable to no term limits. Congress members who face little re-election competition appear to term limit proponents as unresponsive to voters and susceptible to the temptation of corruption.

Opponents of term limits say term limits force out good politicians with the bad, unnecessarily limit voter choice and increase the power of lobbyists and bureaucrats. Term limits also reduce the institutional knowledge that elected officials can build up. For instance, an elected official limited to two four-year terms cannot know precisely why a law enacted ten years earlier was passed.

Examples of Term Limits

The 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution limits the President to serving two four-year terms or ten years in office total if that person takes office through the order of succession. For instance, if a sitting president or vice president dies in office or resigns, their successor—in this case, the speaker of the House—can serve up to ten years.

The 22nd amendment was approved by congress in 1947 and ratified in 1951 following the term of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is the only President to have served more than two four-year terms. Roosevelt served more than 12 years before dying in office. Vice presidents are likewise elected to serve four-year terms, but unlike presidents, they can be elected to serve an unlimited number of times.

Members of Congress, meanwhile, are likewise subjected to term limits—six-year terms in the case of senators and two-years for the House of Representatives—but they can also be elected to serve an unlimited number of times, which is why some incumbent members of Congress have held office for multiple decades.

Federal judges, on the other hand, are not subjected to term limits, nor are they elected. After a presidential appointment, members of the supreme court are allowed to serve lifetime terms, remaining on the bench until death or retirement. 

Other famous governments over the course of history have imposed term limits. Ancient Athenians who served on the Boule, for instance, were limited to two annual terms in a lifetime. They could only head that governing body for one term.