For years, I have been against statutory or Constitution term limits for members of Congress, based on the belief that Citizens should have their choice of who will represent them in Congress and that they are entitled to the consequences of their choices. Another concern has been that the country would lose the services of good representatives when their time expired and less effective ones were likely to replace them.
The Founding Fathers wrestled with this question during the Philadelphia Convention without coming to a consensus. Those for term limits arguing that representatives should truly represent the interests of the people and that long-term service in Congress would cause them to lose touch with their constituents and become unfamiliar with the wishes and needs of the people they represented.
Those against term limits put forth many of the arguments concerning choice and the loss of effective representatives mentioned above. Unable to decide they finally “punted” the decision ahead for future generations to decide. These concerns are still valid, however, many things changed during the twentieth century to make the idea of term limits more agreeable. In fact during the twentieth century Congress departed so far from the Constitution and our founding principles that the only way to regain control of government may be through term limits.
One of the more important twentieth century changes was in political terminology. The most frequently used label for the American form of government during the early part of the nineteenth century was “republican”, referring to a government made up of representatives, chosen directly or indirectly, by the people and bound by a standard of law. The most frequently used label in the twentieth century was “democratic” referring to a government made up of representatives chosen directly by the people and bound only by the “will of the people”. The difference between a republican form of government and a democratic form of government appear small at first, but that difference is extremely important.
Another important change that occurred during the twentieth century was the makeup of the electorate. In the founding era, the voting franchise was limited to stakeholders with “skin in the game”, so to speak. Fearing an electorate made up of the uninformed and disinterested “masses” (democracy), the privilege of voting was restricted to land owners or equivalent, generally resulting in one vote per family. Today the franchise is universally available to all adults over eighteen years of age, due to a number of twentieth century Constitutional Amendments. There are no eligibility requirements that would limit voting to those most likely to understand the issues or be familiar with the candidates for whom they were voting. Ballots are printed in multiple languages so that it is not even necessary to speak English, a fundamental necessity for understanding the issues and the candidates’ positions on those issues.
Still another big factor of the twentieth century that led to the out of control, lawless government we have today was the rise in power of the two major political parties. The concept of citizen legislators who served for a few years and then returned to private life where they had to live with the laws they had created gave way to the career politician with many of them holding on to power for most of their adult lives. The result is, as the Founders predicted, a government made up of career politicians and bureaucrats far removed from the everyday problems, dealt with on a daily basis by the average citizen.
Few of today’s politicians know, understand or respect the Constitution. Law schools no longer teach the Constitution. Instead, they teach case law about it, substituting the past opinions of judges and courts for the clearly stated requirements of the Constitution. The sole purpose of the Constitution is to limit the powers of the federal government. Therefore, it is necessary for politicians to ignore its demands in order to expand and hold onto power. Modern political parties exist wholly for the purpose of accumulating and wielding power. The lawyer/politicians who make up the bulk of our congressional membership think of themselves as advocates for the Party rather than advocates of the people.
On any controversial issue, the truth is always slanted to benefit the party, never to benefit the nation or the people, and certainly never as objective truth. The most important asset to any aspiring politician is party loyalty and the most valuable asset for party leadership is the ability to demand and enforce party discipline. The result is a government run exclusively by the Party leadership for the sole benefit of the Party and without the restraints of Constitutional limits. These Party characteristics are bipartisan. It makes little difference which Party is in power other than the severity of the damage done to the Constitution and the nation.
In order to return the federal government to one limited by the Constitution it will be necessary to break the power of the two political parties. One way of doing that would be to break up the perpetuity of congressional power through term limits.
During the debate concerning the length of service for Senators at the New York state Ratifying Convention, June 24, 1788, George Livingston made the following motion,
“That no person shall be eligible as a Senator for more than six years in any term of twelve years, and that it shall be in the power of the legislatures of the several states to recall their Senators, or either of them, and to elect others in their stead, to serve for the remainder of the time for which such Senator or Senators, so recalled, were appointed.” (This was before the Seventeenth Amendment and Senators were chosen by state legislatures.)
The following day, Melancton Smith in arguing on behalf of the motion said,
“…as the clause (in Article II) now stands, there is no doubt that the Senators will hold their office perpetually; and in this situation, they must of necessity lose their dependence and attachment to the people. It is certainly inconsistent with the established principles of republicanism, that the Senate should be a fixed and unchangeable body of men. There should be then some constitutional provision against this evil. A rotation I consider as the best possible mode of affecting a remedy…”
Livingston and Smith lost the debate in 1788, and their fears eventually came to fruition in both the House and the Senate. The time has now come for us to rethink the issue of term limits, as it may be the only tool the American people have for taking back their government from the Political Parties now controlling it.