Image by wallyg via FlickrFirst, let me say that I am in favor of term limits for all elected officials, particularly our senators and congressional representatives. Term Limits are the only way to prevent the creation of a class of professional politician more interested in reelection then public service. Over time, professional politicians feel entitled to the prestige and power that accumulates to them. They forget that they are in office to serve the people. They pander to the special interest, political action committee’s and power brokers who can best serve their personal interest; forgetting that they are supposed to be citizen servants of the republic, not tenured for life politicians.
The potential for ever achieving a constitutional amendment limiting the terms of the house and senate is not good. In the republican contract with America from 1994 term limits were one of the promises made to the electorate. It was a promise they did not even come close to keeping. No incumbent from either side of the aisle, or either house, is ever going to vote for term limits, if they think there is any chance of passage. It would take a ground swell of public opinion and a deafening clamor from the citizenry to bring them about. Even then, the money that would be spent, on a public relations campaign, to defeat them would stagger the imagination.
Too many special interest, corporate entities and lobbyist would be adversely affected and they would all circle the wagons to prevent such legislation from ever getting out of committee much less coming to a vote. If they had to deal with a politician who knew, he or she was limited to six years; their leverage would be severely curtailed. The politician who has to plan a return to private life is not likely to care as much about securing the benefits of tenure. As it is now though most politicians seem to worry more about the trappings of wealth and power they accumulate over a long political career, then they do about their constituents.
The arguments against term limits are old and well known. One of the most prevalent is that if the founding fathers thought it wise or necessary they would have done so. In fact, they were discussed extensively, prior to the final draft of the constitution. Thomas Jefferson was for them. In June of 1776 as a member of a committee of thirteen, appointed by the continental congress to examine different forms of government for the new nation he urged that tenure be limited. In part, he wrote, "to prevent every danger which might arise to American freedom by continuing too long in office the members of the Continental Congress.” As a result, the fifth article of confederation stated as follows, "no person shall be capable of being a delegate [to the continental congress] for more than three years in any term of six years." Rotation out of office was legislated, at the state level, as a matter of course and most if not all politicians of the day intended to return to private life, once their terms of service were over.
The founding fathers, widely considered giants of intellect and education, even divinely inspired by many, were still after all just men. Men of great courage and accomplishment as they were, they were still fallible like all other men. Their achievements far outweigh their mistakes. Not including term limits in the constitution was one of the very few mistakes. Not abolishing slavery was another. Inspired or not at the end of the day they were just men.
Those favoring term limits included George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason and Richard Henry Lee. Lee once wrote that the lack of term limits was akin to a “most highly and dangerously oligarchic." Mason said, "nothing is so essential to the preservation of a Republican government as a periodic rotation." It is clear from the historical record that some of the best and brightest among the founding fathers thought term limits important to the country and their lack inimical to the voter.
One of the other arguments is that it takes too long to become a good legislator and that term limits would infuse the government with amateur politicians not as capable as the more tenured variety we have today. I have more faith then that in the electorate. I also have more faith in someone who would interrupt their private life for a short and defined amount of time to serve their country. Additionally, one has to consider how the two houses of congress work. Few if any politicians ever read a bill. Their staffs do all the heavy lifting. It is the bright young men and woman, fresh out of school, who write the position papers, bills and campaign literature. I would rather have in office a person who wants to serve their country at the cost of some personal sacrifice then one who sees it as a professional career accruing wealth, power and prestige unto themselves.
The constitution was designed as a living document. The founders put in the process of amending it so that when necessary and appropriate in the view of the citizenry, it could be changed to accommodate new circumstances. Over the years since the founding and particularly since WWII, we have seen elective office become a life long situation. Politicians are subjected to every temptation relating to financial impropriety. Some are caught and some are not. Even when there are no laws broken the quality of decisions made are often more beneficial to the politician and some benefactor then to the people. Enormous time, money and effort are spent on campaigns and accumulating power and influence. It is time and well past time for such a change.
The final argument I would like to answer opposing term limits is the most obtuse and arrogant of them all. Some have postulated that term limits would deprive the voter of choice. The assumption being that more often then not, the voter would prefer to retain the incumbent. In fact, almost eighty-five percent of the time that is just what happens. Were it not for death, disease and retirement it would likely be over ninety percent. It is not necessarily a matter of preference though. Typically, the incumbent has the financial advantage by a large margin. Backed by special interest to whom they are obligated, their party and the power brokers from their home districts they are a virtual juggernaut. Outspending the challengers by a wide margin, they are usually retained unless some peccadillo has tarnished their shield. It is not voter choice that returns ineffective legislators to office repeatedly, it is a lack of choice.
With short defined terms of office, elections would be more of a contest. Challengers who might not now even try because of the futility and expenses would be more inclined to run. The electorate would have more choice, not less. The public would undoubtedly be more engaged, because of the diversity of candidates and importance of elections.
Politics in this country has become the purview of the rich and powerful. Once a nation of citizens serving citizens we have become something else entirely. When one looks at the financial crises, the failure of so many banks, the number of business’s in bankruptcy and all the other domestic problems, one wonders how the quality of government could be any worse. Our health care and education are not working, as they should. Our foreign relations and trade policy’s need work. Immigration, particularly as concerns Mexico is a mess and our borders are not secure. What, just what, I ask, have all those professionals in Washington been doing. Term limits will focus our politicians on our problems instead of their future. It is time to take back our government; it is time for term limits.