So, let’s jump to the end first. Term limits are neither necessary nor are they advisable. Was that anticlimactic?
I was having a short discussion the other day that turned to the topic of legislative branch term limits and it led me to doing a bit of research. It was a topic of which, honestly, I knew very little about the background. I knew that I was not in favor of them, but from an historical perspective, my knowledge was limited. It still is, but I know more now than I did. (More on that in a bit.)
Let me be absolutely clear. Term limits of this kind are a bad idea because:
- They are a treatment of the symptom not the disease.
- They are a way for the electorate to remain uninvolved rather than to encourage an educated and active electorate.
- They force out the few good men & women along with the many who get rich(er) or become enamored with the power and prestige of the position.
- They do not achieve the goal that is intended.
There appear to be essentially two variations on the concept, with multiple variations on the theme.
- Hard limit – The current most popular version on the national stage seems to be 12 years. That is, 6 terms for Representatives and 2 terms for Senators. There are, of course, other variations. After this hard limit is hit, the individual is ineligible to serve in that role again. Some proposals would couple this with removing any eligibility for any other elected office of the same rank, others would not. Most seem to also include removing residual benefits, though this is not strictly speaking a term limit proposal.
- Rotational – While less common, it is out there, and it has a historical basis. This is a concept that a person is only eligible to serve x number of years in y period. It too has a number of variations. (This version was entirely new to me in the conversation referenced above, but as I will get to, has a LONG historical basis.)
The specific proposal put forth in the discussion went like this: Don’t allow anyone to run for a second term while still serving. Make them take a term off, and then they can run again while not in office. The thought behind this is that they would have to think long term.
I don’t agree that this would cause them to think long term. However, leaving that aside because it is a much deeper and longer discussion than this is the immediate venue for, my immediate response was that this was a knee jerk reaction which sounded good on the surface, but that the practical effect would be to actually further entrench only those with money in the political seats of power. It was immediately apparent to me what this meant.
The off term would consist of finding a job, working, then, quitting that job, in order to campaign, and then returning to office. Assuming, of course, that one won the election. Unless, of course, one is already wealthy, a business owner that can afford to not be on the job, etc. In other words, part of the entrenched elite already. Otherwise, it is impractical. If we’re going to do that, we don’t need a rotational term limit arrangement. We can just have them commit to a Bonded Term Limit.
Now, for that research I mentioned. I found that this rotational concept has existed in the past. In fact, it has existed in American history. That’s right. In Section 8 of the Constitution of Pennsylvania – September 28, 1776:
No person shall be capable of being elected a member to serve in the house of representatives of the freemen of this commonwealth more than four years in seven.
And, in Section 19:
… Any person having served as a counsellor for three successive years, shall be incapable of holding that office for four years afterwards….
And, in Section 31:
… No person shall continue in the office of sherlit more than three successive years, or be capable of being again elected during four years afterwards…
So, yes, this rotational term limits has a historical precedent in American history. However, lets think about the time period. Who was eligible to participate in the counsel and the other offices? According to Section 6:
Every freemen of the full age of twenty-one Years, having resided in this state for the space of one whole Year next before the day of election for representatives, and paid public taxes during that time, shall enjoy the right of an elector: Provided always, that sons of freeholders of the age of twenty-one years shall be intitled to vote although they have not paid taxes.
So, while there was no land owning requirement in this Constitution for voting or holding office, it did require the paying of taxes, which at the time was only being paid by the wealthy. The effect was the same. Only the upper crust were eligible to vote and to participate in governing the state.
The fifth article of the Articles of Confederation (Ratified 1781) also specified that (emphasis added):
No State shall be represented in Congress by less than two, nor more than seven members; and no person shall be capable of being a delegate for more than three years in any term of six years; nor shall any person, being a delegate, be capable of holding any office under the United States, for which he, or another for his benefit, receives any salary, fees or emolument of any kind.
And, we note that this was not kept in the Constitution which replaced this ineffectual document just a few short years later.
Though there is reason to believe that many of the “founding fathers” did, in fact, believe in term limits, it appears that these were to be self-imposed or imposed by the voters. They were not to be arbitrarily imposed by the documents forming the basis of our government.
If we the people are not educated enough and aware enough to make informed choices about our candidates, then we cannot rely on an automatic term limit to save us from ourselves. That would only guarantee that one fool is out and another is in. It would not guarantee that the next one is better.
Some arguments put forth in support of term limits include:
- Voters overwhelmingly prefer term limits (more story here)
- While this may be true (it is a Fox news poll after all!), it is not a valid reason for them to be enacted. Voters often support views which are not right. See my post two weeks ago regarding torture!
- Term limits increase competition and encourage new challengers
- Actually, this isn’t borne out by the experiments which have been conducted by states that have enacted term limit laws at the state levels. Here’s one good article about California’s results.
- Term limits break ties to special interests
- On the contrary, it just gets them in the game earlier. Campaign finance reform breaks the ties to special interest lobbying. However, special interest lobbying isn’t actually the issue. It is the undue influence of high dollar special interests to the detriment of other interests that is the actual issue. All interests have a right to be heard in a free country. So, this issue, while completely valid, is not addressed through term limits, but rather through campaign finance and privilege reform.
- Term limits improve tendency to vote on principle
- Actually, again, this has not been borne out. Please do see the article on California’s results. The result actually seems to be a higher tendency to vote on party lines. Almost as if they’re buying their future jobs knowing they’re only going to hold this one for a short time.
As a side point, there was a rotational term limit system of sorts in the Roman Republic too. It too was used to train the elite ruling class to maintain their elite ruling class. (Read up further if interested. Cursus honorum; Roman Republic; Pre-Constitution Term Limits)
There are other reasons put forward, but they all run the same lines and they all make little to no sense when you start to look at the state experiments and the real results. Term limits have an emotional appeal. I admit this. In a practical sense though, they do not have the desired result.
That is the real deciding factor. Forget the fact that we would have to throw out the good guys when we finally find them. Forget any other logical reasoning, and just look at it from a practical stand point. It has been tried, and it simply does not achieve the desired result. Let us learn from this. It is time to move on.
Just because I stumbled on it and it amused me. I thought I would share it here.