Congress dysfunction is making a strong case for term limits
While the Founders did not provide for term limits on federal officeholders, they did express their belief that they were unnecessary for several reasons. Most importantly, they did not plan for a full-time political profession — especially in terms of the House of Representatives.
In terms of the Judiciary, the Founders clearly did not favor term limits when they made federal judgeships life-time appointments. They believed that not subjecting federal justices to an electoral process – or the dismissal by a President – the judges, and therefore the entire federal judiciary, could function without regard to the politics of the moment. They were largely correct in that assumption – but not entirely. Judges tend to follow the political philosophy of the President who appointed them, but the judiciary was still immune to dramatic shifts in membership and decisions based on the politics of the moment.
When it came to the Senate, the Founders provided for six-year terms – three times the length of House members. In addition, only one-third of the Senate would be up for election every two years. That would somewhat insulate the Senate from dramatic shifts in policy in any one election.
The Founders also had the senators from each state selected by the general assemblies – not by direct vote of the people. That came about with the 17th Amendment in 1913. The Founders approach had a term limit effect since it was very unlikely that state legislators would send the same person to the Senate for 30 or 40 years.
And that is another reason why the Founders may not have incorporated term limits in the Constitution. They did not expect folks to live the long and healthy lives we see today. They had every right to expect fate and Providence to limit the terms.
Though they did not enshrine term limits in the Constitution, the benefit of them – or the fear of long tenures – was seen in Washington’s calls for a two-terms limit on the presidency. That wise counsel was heeded until President Franklin Roosevelt broke precedent and successfully ran for a third term in 1940.
The wisdom was also recognized in FDR’s amazing of extraordinary power over his 12-plus year presidency. So much so that Congress passed the 22nd Amendment in a bipartisan vote – precluding future Presidents from serving more than eight years.
The House of Representatives
In terms of the House, the Founders may not have considered term limits because of the life expectancy of the day, but they also did not imagine a full-time around-the-clock legislature made up of career politicians. They saw it as an assembly of citizens taking temporary leave from their careers to serve the nation for a short period. They planned for and foresaw short legislative sessions – a few months each year.
They also did not envision a federal government as large and powerful as we have today. In fact, that was their existential fear. One could legitimately argue that it was the lack of term limits that led to the long professional political careers in Washington – which led to a semi-permanent establishment creating a powerful central government that reversed the polarities away from the rule of the people to an entrenched ruling class.
While we the people have lost enormous power over our lives, it is not too late to change the trajectory. We can shut down the political multi-generational political fiefdoms that control the process by forcing out the entrenched establishment. The best cure for the malady is term limits.
Why term limits?
The foremost benefit is that term limits prevent long-term entrenchment – and dynastic political leadership — with all the power-grabbing and corruption that goes along with it. When you tie long tenures to the “seniority system,” the longer a person is in Congress, the more powerful they become. It is not as a mere courtesy that we preface the title of the longest serving officials with the word “powerful” – the “powerful Senator …” or the “powerful chairman of …”.
Not only do term limits prescribe a fixed term of office, but it also means that the various chairmanships and leadership positions will change every couple of years. The turnover will make Congress more responsive to the will of the people at the moment.
There are many advantages to term limits.
- It would tend to minimize corruption. With only a brief time in Congress, members would not be influenced by long-term relationships with lobbying groups. With less focus on personal power and money, there would be greater focus on issues by both members and lobbyists.
- There would be a constant inflow of fresh ideas and more contemporary perspectives. Congress would not degrade into an old folks’ club. It is not only a matter of “old thinking” but of physical and mental debility – as we recently witnessed with California Senator Diane Feinstein.
- It would tend to reduce the power of incumbency, placing more emphasis on campaign issues when making voting decisions.
- True to the anticipation of the Founders, there would be a greater emphasis on “citizen legislators” from diverse backgrounds – reducing the influence of lawyers as a ruling-class.
- Eliminate the negative impact of “institutional memory.” Some argue that the loss of institutional memory is an argument in favor of the current system. But it is that institutional memory that has made the legislative process so complex and so corrupt.
- It would make the legislative process simpler – eliminating many of the convoluted “House rules” that work to the advantage of those who have had years to impose and understand them.
- Legislators would not have the same obsessive focus on reelection – and consumed by constant fundraising.
States and cities
Terms limits are not an untested theory. They have been enacted in cities and states across the nation. They vary from state to state. Governors and sometimes other statewide officeholders in 37 states face term limits of some kind. The most common (27) are two-term consecutive limits, indicating that after serving two terms the politician has to sit out some period of time before they can run again for the same seat. For example, in Wyoming and Oregon, governors are limited to two terms, but can come back for two more after a ONE term pause. In Montana, you can come back for two more terms after sitting out TWO cycles. In nine states, you have a strict lifetime two-term limit. And in Virginia, you are restricted to a lifetime ONE term.
In addition, 15 states impose term limits on state legislators, the terms of which vary from state to state. Ten of the 15 largest cities impose terms limits on municipal officials.
Convention of the States
Unfortunately, members of Congress have been reluctant to limit their own years in office. Even first-time candidates who pledge to support term limits – and even self-limit – change their minds once in office. The House has refused to send a Term Limit Amendment to the states for ratification – knowing that it would most certainly be ratified.
As a result of that political reality, U.S. Term Limits — the group leading the term limit movement – is promoting the alternative means to enact a constitutional amendment. It means to bypass the reluctant Congress with a Convention of the States.
Under Article V of the Constitution, states can call for a convention to enact amendments to the Constitution. So far, 19 states have passed a broader application that includes term limits. Several other states have passed a resolution in one chamber. And yet others have the resolutions under consideration. It would take 34 states to approve the resolution for a convention, and 38 states to enact an amendment.
Perhaps the strongest case for term limits is the will of the people. Between 70 and 80 percent of the people – according to most polls – would like to see Congress to pass term limits. If our elected representatives will not heed the will of the people, we need to replace them with legislators who will.
So, there ‘tis.