Senate Republicans and Term Limits

Senate Republicans meet at the beginning of every Congress to adopt rules to regulate how they make collective decisions. The Republicans’ conference rules set leadership elections and determine the process by which they allocate committee assignments and select chairs/ranking members for each panel. At those meetings, Republicans may also approve “sense of the conference” resolutions (i.e., the earmark moratorium) and clarify important precedents regarding how they resolved conference debates in the past when their rules were silent. (i.e., senatorial courtesy in the confirmation process for judicial nominees).

Rules I and V(B) limit the time Republicans can serve in a leadership position or as a committee chair/ranking member, respectively. The Republican leader (i.e., floor leader) and the president pro tempore (if Republicans are the majority) are exempted from the term limits specified in Rule I. Efforts to eliminate this exemption have been unsuccessful due to opposition from Republican leaders. They argue that removing the exemption would constitute a public criticism of their leadership and undermine their future effectiveness.


Republicans adopted their two term limit rules in 1995 as part of a package of reforms. The package included:

  • secret ballot votes for committee chairs/ranking members (both in committee and in the full conference);

  • adoption of a Republican Conference agenda by a three-quarters majority of the whole conference;

  • limits for committee chairs/ranking members and party leaders (except for the Republican leader and president pro tempore).

Reform proponents designed the package to limit the autonomy of moderate Republicans who, at the time, dominated many of the Senate’s committees by their seniority. The effort was fueled by frustration among the conservative rank-and-file with Mark Hatfield’s, R-Ore., opposition to the balanced budget constitutional amendment a few months earlier. (The amendment failed by one vote on the Senate floor. Hatfield’s opposition was decisive in its defeat.) Afterward, Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., tried to preserve party unity by forming a task force to consider changing how the Republican Conference operated.

Significantly, the leadership term limits were not included in the original package of reforms recommended by the task force. They were instead proposed by John H. Chafee, R-RI, during the ensuing debate to derail the package’s proposed requirement that chairs/ranking members be term-limited. Chafee's gambit did not work. In the end, Republicans adopted both term limit rules. But they exempted the Republican leader (and president pro tempore) from Chafee’s proposal before doing so.

Don Nickles, R-Okla., was the first Republican in leadership to be “termed out” (i.e., forced to step down from a leadership position due to the rule). Nickles stepped down as Whip in 2002. Jon Kyl, R-Az., was similarly forced to step down as Whip at the end of 2012 after serving three terms in the position. And John Cornyn, R-Tex., John Thune, R-SD, John Barrasso, R-Wy., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., will be forced by the leadership term limits to step down from their current positions at the end of the 115th Congress.

Two Different Rules

Republicans incorporated committee term limits into Rule V of their conference rules. Rule V(B), as amended in 1995, stipulated, “A Senator shall serve no more than six years as chair and six years as ranking member of any standing committee, effective in January 1997.” Republicans clarified the rule in 2002 in response to a dispute prompted by the first round of chairs/ranking members being termed out by the rule. Republican Conference Chair Rick Santorum, R-Pa., claimed, at the time, that Rule V(B) limited the time senators could serve as a chair and ranking member to six years in total. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., countered that Republicans originally intended Rule V(B) to limit the time senators could serve as chair and ranking member to six years for each position. Under Specter’s interpretation, senators could serve in a committee leadership position for up to twelve years total- six as chair and six as ranking member.

Republicans eventually adopted Specter’s interpretation and amended Rule V(B) to clarify that senators could serve up to twelve years under the term limits for chairs/ranking members. Rule V(B), as amended, now stipulates,

(1) A Senator shall serve no more than six years, cumulatively, as chairman of the same standing committee This limitation shall not preclude a Senator from serving for six years, cumulatively, as chairman of other committees, in series, if the Senator's seniority and election by committee members provides the opportunity for such additional service.

(2) Service as ranking member shall also be limited to six years, cumulatively, in the same pattern as described in (1) above. Time served as ranking member shall not be counted as time served as chairman.

Once a Senator has completed six years as chairman of a committee, there will be no further opportunity for that Senator to serve as ranking member of that same committee if control of the Senate shifts and Republicans go into the minority. The opportunity for service as ranking member, outlined in (2) above, takes place either before or in interruption of the Senator's six-year term as chairman, not after.

In contrast to the 1995/2002 committee term limits, Republicans did not define leadership term limits by the calendar year. Whereas Republicans are limited to six years as chair and six years as ranking member, they can serve no more than three terms in a leadership position. While a leadership term may last for up to two years, Rule I requires that such terms “shall expire at the close of each Congress” regardless of how long a senator served in the position during the preceding two-year period. After defining a term in this way, Rule I then stipulates, “a Senator shall serve no more than three terms in any elected party leadership position other than Floor Leader or President Pro Tempore.”

Impact on the Senate

The Republicans’ term limit rules have reinforced the recent centralizing trend in Senate decision-making. Their decision to exempt the Republican/floor leader from the limits helped transform the Republican leadership into a hierarchical structure in which influence is concentrated at the top. The resulting centralization of power in the Republican Conference mirrors a similar structure long in place in the Democratic Caucus. Together, the two centralized parties make it possible for the majority and minority leaders to exercise unprecedented control over the legislative process.

Historically, Republicans have had a corporate leadership structure. That is, the various leadership roles (i.e., coordinating floor activity, counting votes, messaging, policy development, etc.) were separated into distinct positions that were held by different senators. In contrast, Democrats have had a hierarchical leadership structure in which all power is centralized in their floor leader. Unlike Republican leaders, Democratic leaders preside over their leadership teams; the lower leadership positions are considered subordinate to the floor leader.

The Republicans’ corporate approach was based on a division of labor that encouraged those who wanted to be in leadership to focus on how they would perform the tasks associated with the position to which they aspired. Republican leaders did not preside over their colleagues; the other leadership positions were not subordinate to them.

Yet this began to change after Republicans adopted term limits while exempting the floor leader. Separating the floor leader from the others encouraged senators to think differently about their leadership structure. Competitive leadership elections disappeared soon after Republicans adopted term limits in 1995 as those senators not in leadership opted to wait for a position to open up instead of challenging an incumbent. And those Republicans serving in the leadership kept a low profile while waiting to move up the leadership ladder as vacancies occur above them. As they bide their time, the leadership collectively looks to the Republican leader to call the shots.

The perceived influence of the Republican leader position vis-à-vis the other leadership positions has helped senators occupying it to play an outsized role in the legislative process more broadly. However, Republican leaders’ increased involvement in the other leadership offices has likely contributed to the Senate’s present dysfunction as they are now saddled with responsibilities beyond those traditionally belonging to a floor leader. By playing active roles in policy development, messaging, campaigning, and vote counting, Republican leaders are left with less time (and resources) to do the job for which they were hired initially- coordinating the action of their Republican colleagues on the Senate floor.

Reform Proposals

Republican senators may counter the Senate’s present centralization when the Republican Conference next convenes by offering an amendment to the conference rules to treat all leadership positions the same under the term limit rule. This can be done in two ways.

Option A

Republicans could strike the current exemption for the Republican leader and president pro tempore. The amendment rule would read as follows:

A senator shall serve no more than three terms in any elected party leadership position. This change shall be effective beginning in the 116th Congress, and the floor leader, if elected, shall be eligible to serve for not more than three terms.

The current leader, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., could also be grandfathered in if needed to overcome his opposition. In that case, the term limits would only apply to senators serving in leadership in the future.

Option B

Republicans could strike the term limits for all elected leadership positions. The leadership positions authorized by the Conference Rules are coordinate and independent positions. Each is charged with a distinct institutional mission and is given resources to fulfill those responsibilities. Eliminating term limits for the lower leadership positions incentivizes members to view the posts as independent platforms to advance their vision for the Conference. Note: It is current practice in the House not to term limit leadership positions. The amended rule would read as follows:

The term of office of all party officers herein provided shall extend for not more than two years, and shall expire at the close of each Congress.