The health of our representative republic is dependent upon the notion that no one man should permanently dominate government. George Washington, after serving two terms as our nation’s first and finest president, set the example not only for future presidents but other members of government by refusing to pursue a third. In the tradition of Cinncinnatus, who was twice appointed dictator of Rome in times of emergency and twice relinquished the title upon fulfillment of his duties, Washington intended to deliver a clear message: men who make a career of politics are flirting with tyranny. While the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution made this tradition the law of the land for the office of president, no such amendment pertaining to the United States Congress has seen passage.
Why, you ask? Well, the answer exposes one of the few fundamental but inevitable flaws in our Constitution and is an exercise in basic civics, which by my estimation none of you were taught in public school (just as I was not), so this may be new to some of you. Congressional term limits are only possible through a Constitutional amendment. Passing an amendment to the Constitution is rightly a laborious and difficult process and requires a measure to first be agreed upon in Congress (you can see the problem now, I think) and passed by a two-thirds majority in both houses. The bill is then submitted to the legislatures of every state in the Union for a simple up or down vote. As long as three-fourths of the states vote “yes,” the amendment is adopted and added to the Constitution. The US House has voted on the issue of Congressional term limits three times after the Republicans took control in 1994. Only once did the measure receive a majority, though it fell well short of the required two-thirds needed.
So in order for term limits to happen, the powerful must willingly relinquish their power, just as Washington courageously did in 1797. Judging from Congress’ voting record on whether or not to give themselves a pay raise (for a job well done, I suppose?), the likelihood of a Congressional term limit amendment falls just below Gary Coleman’s Oscar chances. I suppose that would make this entire argument academic, but (at the risk of getting Gary Coleman’s hopes up) stranger things have happened.
The need for Congressional term limits is clear to anyone with the eyes to see it. Indeed, most polls show two-thirds of the American public strongly favor the idea, as did Washington and Jefferson during the nation’s founding. Career politicians are disgustingly susceptible to corruption and monumentally difficult to unseat. A high rate of turnover in Congress is healthy for the republic, increasing competition and creating a merit-based hierarchy within the legislature rather than one based solely upon seniority. A limitation on the number of times a legislator is subject to re-election will incentivize principle-based votes rather than those driven by populist posturing. The strong ties between special interests and their long-time champions within Congress would be regularly broken, and these groups would be forced to make their case to a new crop of legislators. And best of all, term limits would eliminate the overwhelming bias for government growth and intervention on the part of those who have made their careers and reputations in government (even so-called conservatives).
Despite the obvious merits of Congressional term limits, various counter-arguments abound. For instance, some contend that this system would empower staffers, aides and other bureaucrats. The simple fact, however, is that it would be hard for these individuals to amass any more power and influence than they already have outside of running for office themselves. Congressional bureaucrats write legislation, correspond with constituencies, set their boss’s schedule, offer advice on key issues, serve as unofficial lobbyists and much, much more. Regardless of whether term limits are instituted or not, that will not likely change. Nevertheless, according to many experts such a mandatory turnover would most likely trickle down to staffers, as new legislators will bring with them new aides and advisers and be less accustomed to being “handled.”
Still others argue that term limits would represent an elimination of invaluable and irreplaceable experience in government. While the detractors of term limits intend this to be taken as a negative, I cite this as a central argument for them. There seems to be a perception that American citizens who have spent their lives outside of government are incapable of functioning within government (this notion is a direct result of the rise of career politicians). How insulting and illogical to think that an individual with a strong moral compass, commonsense and the confidence of his peers is an inappropriate replacement for what is oftentimes a jaded, complacent incumbent. A government composed of successful, concerned citizens was the very intent of the Founders rather than a welfare system for those incapable of or unwilling to pursue success in the private sector.
If term limits are to remain in the realm of fantasy, however, we would do well to at least assign a government-appointed staffer to walk behind our congressmen as they crisscross the halls of the Capitol whispering “memento mori,” or “remember, thou art mortal.”