If a “man on the street” poll was taken between the popularity of ice cream versus the popularity of term limits, you may be surprised by the results. Let’s assume that 90% of the public enjoys and approves of ice cream. (Yes, there are people that do not like ice cream, and I am not going to waste one second of my time painting lawn ornaments to take a poll.) Did you realize that in our recent history, over 75% of the voting public was in favor of term limits for our elected officials? Who knew? But more of that later.
We all realize that without term limits we are inviting many people to obtain unlimited power with other people’s money; specifically, our money. Also, with people “homesteading” in Congress, new and original ideas are more difficult to obtain, as they are now more firmly entrenched in their “party line.” They get elected, they build their walls, spend way too much time and money on getting reelected, and regurgitate crappy watered-down legislation for us, the ignorant public.
So, have term limits only been a problem for our young representative democracy?
Our form of government is indeed a baby when in ancient Athens, the 500 members of the elected council were all rotated annually. The Spartans did the same. Of course, you can imagine that being an elected official was time consuming, and took you away from your daily chores of making a living. You still had to tend your flocks, pick your olives, and get ready for the next invasion by those pesky Persians.
The ancient Roman Republic had a system of elected magistrates; tribunes of the plebs (think Richard Burton as Marc Antony), aediles, quaestors, praetors, and consuls, who served a single term of one year, with reelection to the same magistracy forbidden for ten years!
But our country had its proponents of term limit supporters during our infancy. In October, 1789, the Continental Congress appointed a committee of thirteen to examine forms of government for our impending union of the states. The proposal from the State of Virginia, written by Thomas Jefferson, urged term limits, or as they called it, “limitation of tenure.” He proposed this, “to prevent every danger which might arise to American freedom by continuing too long in office the members of the Continental Congress.” This was included in the Articles of Confederation. The fifth Article in the Articles of Confederation stated that “no person shall be capable of being a delegate (to the continental congress) for more than three years in any term of six years.
So far, so good. But what happened?
In contrast to the Articles of Confederation, the federal constitution convention in Philadelphia omitted mandatory term limits from the second national frame of government (i.e). the U.S. Constitution of 1787 to the present. Nonetheless, largely because of grassroots support for the principle of rotation, rapid turnover in Congress prevailed. At the time, the public did not want a form of government that was akin to England, that being a monarchy. George Washington set a precedent for two terms for the presidency, until FDR came along.
But our forefathers were pretty darn smart. Many of them fought for term limits to be added to the Constitution; foremost among them being Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and George Mason. They believed that without term limits, our country was susceptible to becoming a “most highly and dangerous oligarch”. So even though term limits were not specifically added to our Constitution, it was not a problem in the remainder of the 18th and the 19th centuries. That was because the fear of mistrust upon political power was so ingrained into American culture that even the officeholders themselves perceived their occupations in a disparaging light. James Fenimore Cooper, the novelist, described the common view that “contact with the affairs of state is one of the most corrupting of the influences to which men are exposed.” Holy crap, batman! Not only did he write the Last of the Mohicans, but the guy must have had a 20-20 crystal ball!
“Homesteading” in Congress was made possible by reelection rates that approached 100% by the end of the 20th century. This brought about a “term limits movement.” The elections of 1990-1994 saw the adoption of term limits for state legislatures in almost every state where citizens had the power of the initiative. In addition, 23 states limited service for their delegates to Congress. These 23 states were bold and brash enough to correct a problem that even the ancient Athenians anticipated.
So, to change directions for a moment, let us review the current U.S. term limits. The POTUS (President of the United States) has a total of two 4-year terms. The Senate, House of Representatives, and Vice President have no term limits. Did you catch that? The VP has no term limits; so we could still have Al Gore as Vice President! How did we let that get away? But now, here is the clincher. The Justices of the Supreme Court are elected for life, and consequently have no term limits. This is indeed one of the failings of our forefathers. But let’s face it; they all lived in a time when life expectancy was about puberty times two. I am sure they did not foresee Supreme Court Justices fossilizing while sitting on the bench.
Now let us return to the 23 magnificent states that were bold, brash and heroic enough to vote to limit the terms of members of the national government. “So why Grandpa T”, you ask, “do we not have term limits on our senators and representatives?” “It was passed by 23 states.” A very good question, and here is the answer…..wait for it…..wait for it….here it comes; because those term limits were declared invalid by the only group of people without term limits: our United States Supreme Court! Yes, the people who can serve until an air bubble or lump of cholesterol does them in ruled in May, 1995, in the case of U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, that states cannot impose term limits upon their federal Representatives or Senators. Now does that pass the common sense test? Grandpa T’s tachometer of common sense has just hit negative numbers.
How does it feel to know that just about half the states passed legislation restricting their representation to Congress, only to have the Supreme Court do a WWF smack-down on the voters wishes. Those Supreme Court Justices in 1995 must not have googled or wikipediaed to find out our forefathers were very much aware of the dangers of not having term limits. As an aside, today there are 15 states that do have term limits for state-elected officials, of which I reside in one of them. Now get this, six of the states (remember the original 23?) have since had legislatures that have nullified term limits in their respective states. Thirty- six states do have term limits for their governors.
In 1994, a part of the Republican platform was to pass legislation setting term limits in Congress. After winning a majority, a Republican congressman brought an amendment to the House floor putting a limit of 12 years on Senators and Representatives. The bill got a majority, but not the 2/3 needed, as 290 votes were needed, and 227 were cast in favor. Defeated in Congress and overridden by the Supreme Court, the federal term limit uprising was brought to a halt.
There have been discussions about limiting the terms of the Supreme Court Justices. A very good one is to limit them to 18 years, even though they have served just over 26 years, on average, in modern times. The thinking is that one Justice would be replaced every two years and that every president would be able to nominate two. This makes too much common sense, and it puts Grandpa T’s tachometer of common sense into red line numbers, so it will never be implemented. Besides, the general public does not care about term limits for the Supreme Court, much less how many Justices there are or who they are.
Some day, there may be another effort to legislate term limits; but it would have to be a very dynamic grass roots effort. After all, once you have cockroaches in your house, its damn tough to get rid of them.
I want to thank google and wikipedia for providing me information in less than 5 minutes, that would have taken me 6 hours twenty years ago.
Whew. All this thinking and writing has given me a headache. I think I will have a bowl of ice cream.