Congressional Term Limits: An Answer for Our Times?

The rate of reelection over the last 50 years to the US Congress has varied from 85% to over 90%. Yet, about three fourths of the electorate (the people) think we need term limits (82% of Republicans and 65% of Democrats) for Congress members. It is clear that career congressional members stay in congress in spite of the majority of the people’s wishes. This is largely because of their access to outside media, experienced campaign staff members, large donations via lobby groups and super-pacs (for political favors), and restructuring of voting districts (gerrymandering).

Ever the pragmatists, many politicians have learned to use the American electorate’s desire to limit Congressional terms by pledging to support it in their campaigns. Then, once elected many (one third of 39 Republican’s elected in 1994) simply renege and stay in office as long as possible.

After the 1994 elections, which gave the Republicans control of both the US Senate and the House term limits legislation actually passed with a 227 to 204 majority. However, the bill failed because an amendment to the Constitution requires a 2/3 majority. It is hard to say how many legislators voted for the amendment knowing that Congress would never get the required majority. The US Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that the states could not limit the terms of federally elected officials. Since then, just five states have asked the US Congress to pass legislation limiting their member’s terms.

Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the US Declaration of Independence and our third president saw clearly the dangers of unrestricted terms for federal offices. Here are some quotes:

“All [reforms ] can be… [achieved] peaceably by the people confining their choice of representatives and senators to persons attached to republican government and the principles of 1776; not office hunters, but farmers whose interests are entirely agricultural. Such men are the true representatives of the great American interest and are alone to be relied on for expressing the proper American sentiments.” Thomas Jefferson to A, Campbell, 1797

“A government by representatives elected by the people at short periods was our object, and our maxim…was, ‘where annual elections ends, tyranny begins;’ nor have our departures from it been sanctioned by the happiness of their effects.” Thomas Jefferson to S. Adams, 1800

“I apprehend that the total abandonment of the principle of rotation in the offices of President and Senator will end in abuse.” Thomas Jefferson to E, Rutledge, 1788

Jefferson’s proposal for term limits in the Virginia Constitution summarizes his concern that unlimited terms of office lead to career politicians, corruption and isolation from those who elect them.

“I proposed the representatives (and not the people) should choose the [state] Senate…To make them independent I had proposed that they should hold their places for nine years and then go out (one third every three years) and be incapable forever of being reelected to that house. My idea was that if they might be reelected, they would be casting their eye forward to the period of election (however distant) and be currying favor with the electors and consequently dependent upon them. My reason for fixing them in office for a term of years rather then for life was that they might have an idea that they were at a certain period to return into the mass of people and become the governed instead of the governor, which might still keep alive that regard to the public good that otherwise they might perhaps be induced by their independence to forget.” Thomas Jefferson to E. Pendleton, 1776

Conservative author and columnist, Walter Donway writes eloquently at thesavvystreet.com, “Today, the Jeffersonian vision is not about farmers versus bankers, or planters versus manufacturers; but the essence remains—neither a political class nor economic power should rule the republic. This is not to say there is a equivalence between political power (the power of law, initiation of force) and economic power (the power of production, offering incentives). But today, government, by means of regulation, taxing or tax breaks, penalties or subsidies—all the ways that “crony capitalism” marries the power of politicians to the interests of businessmen—can affect the success, even survival, of virtually any enterprise or entire industry. In the mixed economy, or crony capitalism, the line between economic power and political power blurs. America’s leading companies, especially on Wall Street, make handsome contributions to both Democratic and Republican candidates because they cannot afford to have an important politician in office to whom they do not have “access.””

After the fourth term of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Congress passed the 24th amendment, which limits the President to the traditional two terms. But, those were different days when concern for the integrity of the Constitution, the financial health of the nation, and the welfare of the majority of the electorate was still the main concern of Congress. There have been and still are a few members of Congress who have limited themselves to one or two terms. But, to expect the majority of them to give up the gravy train is, without a miracle futile.

Author, Mark Levin’s answer is The Liberty Amendments (available at Amazon.com). The first section of his first amendment (there are eleven) limits the total number of years any one person can serve in the US Congress (Senate and House) to 12 years. The second section assures current congressional members that they can only serve the remainder of their terms if they have served more than the maximum 12 years.

In my view, his amendments are not just laudable, but absolutely vital if we are to preserve a nation that promotes individual freedom with equality under just laws. But, it can only happen if our current crop of mostly self-serving legislators (Republicans and Democrats) are replaced with legislators who deeply value our Constitution, our founding father’s vision of a self-governing nation of free peoples and that see themselves as servants of we the people.

This will only happen over a long time period (perhaps decades) from the bottom up. It will happen when enough state legislators become convinced that term limits is critical to the continued life of our nation. Then, those members of the US Congress, elected by the people who installed those conservative state legislators will finally endorse and promote term limits.

God bless you all,

Len

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