Presidential Term Limit

Section 1. 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. But this Article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this Article was proposed by Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this Article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.

Section 2. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission to the States by the Congress.

Amendment XXII

Although the Twenty-second Amendment was clearly a reaction to Franklin D. Roosevelt's service as President for an unprecedented four terms, the notion of presidential term limits has long-standing roots in American politics. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 considered the issue extensively, although it ultimately declined to restrict the amount of time a person could serve as President. But following George Washington's decision to retire after his second elected term, numerous public figures subsequently argued he had established a "two-term tradition" that served as a vital check against any one person, or the presidency as a whole, accumulating too much power. Congress expressed its interest in presidential term limits by introducing 270 measures restricting the terms of office of the President prior to proposing the Twenty-second Amendment.

Nonetheless, sustained political attention to this matter only developed with Roosevelt. In 1946, lawmakers made the President's four terms an issue in congressional election campaigns, pledging to support a constitutional amendment that would prevent a similarly lengthy presidency in the future. In January of 1947, prominent House leaders acted on these campaign promises, introducing an initiative that ultimately became the Twenty-second Amendment.

The turning point in the debates on the measure occurred when Senator Warren Magnuson argued for an amendment that would simply bar someone from being "elected to the office of President more than twice." Magnuson claimed that other proposals being considered were too "complicated" and comprehensive and might unfairly restrict a person who assumed the office of President "through circumstances beyond his control, and with no deliberation on his part...but because of an emergency," such as the death of an elected President. When some legislators countered that Magnuson's proposal provided insufficient controls on those who assumed the presidency through these "unfortunate circumstance[s]," a compromise was struck. The final proposal provided a general prohibition against a person being elected to the office of the President more than twice while imposing additional restrictions on some individuals who attained the office of President through nonelectoral means, such as succession. The resulting language is what we now know as the Twenty-second Amendment.

We can safely conclude that those who drafted the amendment sought somehow to prevent the emergence of a President with a tenure as lengthy as Roosevelt's. Many proponents of the measure further argued that they sought to codify the two-term tradition associated with Washington. But although these observations surely point us to the general aspirations of the amendment's authors, they do not establish a specific picture of how the framers intended their proposal to apply.

To begin with, congressional deliberations about the amendment were curtailed. For example, the House restricted debate to two hours. Furthermore, the discussions leading up to the proposing of the Twenty-second Amendment did not obviously suggest a consistent, clear legislative purpose. Lawmakers expressed, at various times, their interest in limiting a President's "service," "terms," "tenure," and "[eligibility for] reelection," without elaborating exactly how they understood these terms. Moreover, when Congress dropped early proposals to foreclose a person's eligibility for office if he had served in two prior terms and instead adopted the current text that focuses on limiting individuals twice elected to the presidency, it provided little explanation for this important shift beyond needing "compromise" as part of the lawmaking process. One should also note that the framers of the amendment did not obviously intend to create a two-term tradition in any narrow sense, because they specifically discussed allowing someone who became President through an "emergency" within the first two years of one term to secure election for two additional terms. We are therefore left with some uncertainty about the precise goals of the Twenty-second Amendment's creators.

The ratification debates over the amendment do not provide much additional insight into the particular wishes of those who supported the proposal in the states. In general, the amendment does not appear to have prompted a great deal of public or legislative discussion once proposed by Congress.

Although numerous court opinions make passing reference to the Twenty-second Amendment, its parameters have not been systematically examined by the judiciary. No doubt the low profile of the amendment in the courts reflects limited interest in and opportunity for testing the provision. Since the amendment was ratified, only five Presidents have been technically limited by it (Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, William Jefferson Clinton, and George W. Bush were all twice elected), and, to date, none of these individuals seriously considered challenging the amendment's legal restrictions or meaning.

These facts should not lead one to conclude that the Twenty-second Amendment is so straightforward that it requires no further interpretation. Among other unresolved questions, the amendment seems to leave open the possibility that a twice-elected President could still become President through nonelectoral means. For example, such a person might still be elevated to the presidency after serving as Vice President, or, if authorized, to act as President through a presidential-succession statute.

Bruce Peabody
Professor of Political Science
Dept. of Soc. Sci. & History
Fairleigh Dickinson University