As the election season heats up, candidates are making promises and signing pledges regarding what they will do in the event they are elected. Many North candidates running to represent North Carolinians in both state and federal offices have been signing a particular pledge for term limits on members of US Congress.

The idea behind term limits is that after many terms in a legislative body, major players can become entrenched and may not be as receptive to their constituents as they are to special interests and donors. By limiting how many terms legislators can serve, the hope is that they will not slowly drift into this common pattern.

The group North Carolina Term Limits, which is part of the larger group US Term Limits, has been tracking these pledges. Powerful politicians like state Rep. Jason Saine, a senior budget chair from Lincoln County; and state Rep. Erin Paré, a Wake County Republican and chair of the House Health Committee; are among the signatories. Current NC congressional delegation members Sens. Thom Tillis and Ted Budd, and Reps. Greg Murphy, Richard Hudson, Chuck Edwards, and Dan Bishop have also signed.

Another notable backer of US congressional term limits is state House Speaker Tim Moore, who is now running for a Charlotte-area US House seat himself. The group praised him for his pledge.

“As Speaker, Moore has presided over a body of citizen-legislators who serve part time for low pay and remain accountable to the folks back home. Unfortunately, Congress shares none of these features,” said Nick Tomboulides, executive director of US Term Limits.

One can read in Tomboulides’ comment effort to ease the apparent tension of the longest-running speaker in NC history running on term limits. He made the distinction that the NC legislature is more accountable to the people than the US Congress because they are paid less and are part time. But one could challenge both these points.

The low pay ($13,951 per year plus $104 per day in session) can make the job attractive to those who already have some money and influence while making it unmanageable for most everyday North Carolinians. And the “part-time” legislature is becoming less and less so, as seen in the 2023 long session, which dragged on month after month.

The conservative base who had fought to place these leaders in power began grumbling long before the final end of session in late October. In theory, long sessions are supposed to end closer to the Fourth of July than Halloween. A clear perception emerged that the failure to pass a budget in a timely manner was due to the prioritization of issues — like non-tribal casinos and NCInnovation funding — that mattered to special interests more than the general public.

The fact that these issues were being championed by a General Assembly leadership that has served longer than any previous only amplified the concerns. Speaker Moore has served a record five terms (10 years) as speaker, and Leader Berger’s 14th year at the head of the state Senate (starting in January) makes him the nation’s longest-running current legislative leader.

It may not even be necessary to have overall term limits, where no members can serve more than a handful of terms. Limits just on the length one can serve in leadership positions (like speaker of the House, president pro tempore of the Senate, or Rules Committee chair of either chamber) could make a big difference.

There was a time in North Carolina when the speaker position in the state House would rotate, with one term filled by someone from western North Carolina and the next by someone in eastern North Carolina. The reasoning was that when power is consolidated in a particular set of people, their priorities may have a tendency to dominate to the exclusion of others’ priorities.

A Civitas Poll from this fall found North Carolinians overwhelmingly support this type of term limits on leadership, with 85% of those polled being in favor and less than 5% opposed.

“The current leaders of the General Assembly are some of the longest tenured in the nation, and in state history,” John Locke Foundation CEO Donald Bryson said at the time. “There is a broader appetite for legislative reform, as seen with the filing of Senate Bill 394 this session, and that conversation is overdue. Any move for legislative reform will almost certainly include a term limits conversation, and it’s clear that voters are in favor.” 

The bill Bryson referenced, SB 394, had both Democrats and Republicans as primary sponsors but was sent to the Senate Rules Committee and never reemerged. SB 394 wouldn’t have implemented any changes, but would have just created a study committee to look at term limits, legislator pay, and session limits.

Even if there is some resistance among legislative leaders to create a committee to discuss these issues, the public appears ready to begin without them. Maybe it’s time to start gathering signatures for a new pledge.