One of the ongoing debates in our country is whether term limits should be imposed on legislators in Congress. Indeed, one well-worn joke that periodically makes the rounds asks: “What do little babies and Congress have in common?” The answer is: “They both stink and are in need of changing.” Although this is only a joke, it is true that changes do need to be made in Congress. The implementation of terms limits in Congress is one of the most crucial changes that needs to be made in Congress and “We, the People” should begin to understand and support this issue.
Our country began at a very perilous time, but the founding fathers were optimistic for the future. The colonies had functioned as a country with very limited powers under the heavy hand of Great Britain and the fledgling country was eager to establish a democracy where “We, the People”—not the king, were in control. It seems so idealistic now, looking at it from the perspective of 238 years later—but surely, none of the country’s leaders could have anticipated that the United States would eventually encompass all the land between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Surely, none could have known that the size and scope of our government would have become what it is today. Surely, none could have foreseen that the United States would become one of the greatest superpowers that the world has ever known. Moreover, in that more innocent time, I believe the founders formed the best republic possible and that they were wise in creating checks and balances that would ostensibly keep one branch of government from becoming too powerful, or even abusive. Unfortunately, today, after more than 200 years of jockeying for control, all three branches of government have learned ways to increase their powers and influence, and have far surpassed the powers that the Framers of the Constitution granted them.
Although, today, the Constitution does not mandate term limits for Congress, term limits do have a historical precedence. Mark Levin notes that the Articles of Confederation provided for term limits; however, when the Constitutional Convention delegates were framing the Constitution, term limits were not included. He also reminds us that the delegates chose to place more emphasis on checks and balances between the three branches of government than issues such as term limits (22-23). The inference was that because legislators from the thirteen states were “citizen legislators,” who volunteered their time out of a sense of civic duty, it was not necessary to include term limits in the Constitution. But, founding father Thomas Jefferson, who was a firm advocate of rotation (known today as term limits), said in a letter to James Madison that “I dislike, and strongly dislike…the abandonment, in every instance, of the principle of rotation in office” (Levin 26). Jefferson did not ultimately win the argument; however, as Levin points out, it would be a mistake to say from its omission that term limits were repudiated (27). Moreover, it is unlikely that the founding fathers could have foreseen that the incumbency rate for representatives in Congress during their time would go from a very low number to about 85% in 2010 (Levin 19).
For the next 160 years, the concept of term limits was largely forgotten; however, when Franklin D. Roosevelt won the Presidency for a fourth term in 1944, many Americans were alarmed and Congress soon added an amendment to the Constitution which prohibited future presidents from serving more than two terms. Moreover, Keith J. Larson states that in a grassroots movement in the early 1990’s, “a furor of anti-incumbent sentiment stirred the voters of twenty-two states to pass legislation imposing term limits on members of Congress” (762). However, the issue of term limits was eventually taken to the Supreme Court in U. S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, and by a slim margin (5-4), the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for states to impose term limits in this way. Nonetheless, in more recent times, the Tea Party has jumped on the term limits bandwagon and, today, many others are also attempting to bring attention to the need for term limits in Congress (762-63).
I was born and reared a Hoosier in the State of Indiana and my family was strictly a blue-collar General Motors family, and accordingly voted Democrat. However, one of the household names in Indiana from the 1970’s going forward was Republican Richard “Dick” Lugar. I well remember reading about and watching Dick Lugar on television. He served as the mayor of Indianapolis for two terms (we lived in a nearby town) and a few years after, he was elected as Senator to Indiana. I voted for him thereafter for as long as I was an Indiana resident and casually followed his career, even after I moved away from Indiana. On a family trip to Washington, D. C. in 1985, I even had the opportunity to meet Dick Lugar and have my picture taken with him.
The point of telling this story about Dick Lugar is that he went on to have an illustrious and influential career in the Senate for the next 36 years. However, as detailed in an article entitled “Why Dick Lugar Lost,” Lugar faced off with challenger Richard Mourdock in the 2012 Republican primary in Indiana and was soundly defeated (Cillizza and Blake 1). I felt the shock waves of this upset defeat all the way down into Texas and I can only imagine how Hoosiers in Indiana and Lugar’s Republican colleagues in Congress felt. There were several reasons why Dick Lugar lost, and although I can identify at least a dozen reasons why “We, the People” need terms limits for our congressional representatives, I will focus on three of the most important.
The writers of “Why Dick Lugar Lost” propose that the reason he lost was he “broke the political golden rule: Never lose touch with the people who elected you” (Cillizza and Blake 1). An analogy with this political golden rule is also a truism in the State of Indiana, where Lugar and I were “born and bred,” and it says: “Dance with the guy who brought you.” Therefore, my first reason why Americans need term limits is that long-time incumbents in Congress get caught up in the power structure of the hallowed halls of Congress and forget that their number one obligation is to the people who elected them. Because of long-term legislators like Dick Lugar, who have forgotten who elected them and who they should be serving, “We, the People” have a message for them. “We, the People” don’t really care if our congressman is a high-profile, high-ranking chairman of a powerful committee in Congress. “We, the People” dislike the fact that many of our representatives listen to and try to please special interests and lobbyists far more than they do their constituents. We don’t care if our congressperson would like to be one of the most tenured legislators who builds up tremendous power and influence. Why? Because we want OUR voices to be heard. We want our congressperson’s vote to reflect OUR opinions. How does our representative know what we want? He must ask us, he must listen to us, and he must vote accordingly to what the majority of his constituents want. “We, the People” don’t appreciate seeing or hearing from our legislators only when it is time for reelection. Serving his constituent’s interests should be the representative’s whole purpose for continuing to serve us in Congress, but because it often isn’t, this is why “We, the People” need to work toward the goal of term limits for our elected representatives.
A second reason that term limits should be imposed on Congress is because of the unfair advantages incumbents possess. According to Roger Ruggles, partisan “political gangs” and “the good old buddy system” help long-term incumbents in Congress to become entrenched, giving them major advantages over their challengers (1). In fact, Newt Gingrich wrote that “[a]n entrenched body of politicians erodes Congress’s accountability and responsiveness. An enormous national debt, deficit spending, and political scandals are but a few of the results. Although enacting term limits would not be a panacea, it will be the first step to putting our legislative system back on track” (Qtd. in Larson 764). Other unfair advantages that incumbents have include the instant name recognition that low-information voters look for instead of looking carefully at the incumbent’s voting record. In addition, challengers cannot hope to compete with incumbents who have large staffs, who are allowed to volunteer time to help their boss win reelection, the free franking privilege, much more money in campaign contributions, travel expenses to go home and campaign, and greater access to the media to tout their campaign for reelection.
A third reason why term limits should be imposed in the United States is that it is apparent that many Americans are fed up with the performance of their representatives in Congress. Mark Levin states that “Congress’s approval averaged 14 percent for the first part of 2013, 15 percent in 2012, 17 percent in 2011, and 19 percent in 2010” (32). Clearly, there is a disconnection between members of Congress and their constituents. With statistics from polls like these, it comes as no surprise that more Americans are in favor of term limits. A Gallup poll in January of 2013 reported that “75% of the public said they would vote for term limits for Congress” (Qtd. In Winchester 3). And it should come as no surprise that Congress as a whole is content to let the system of limitless terms continue since they are all career politicians in every sense of the word, and have no desire to lose all the considerable benefits they enjoy as a member of Congress. For Congress to vote for term limits, and therefore vote themselves out of office, would be like cows voting for McDonald’s Big Macs. It is most unlikely to happen. In fact, Richard Winchester notes that “the notion of congressional term limits is overwhelmingly opposed by the American ruling class, especially the representatives and senators who would have to vote on it” (3). Mark Levin echoes Winchester’s opinion about Congress being a ruling class when he says that the citizen legislators the Framers envisioned “have been replaced with a professional ruling class led by governing masterminds. For the most part, they are isolated from the communities from which they hail and are consumed with the daily jockeying for position and power within their ranks. Moreover, they both pander to and lord over their constituents” (31).
Since there are so many Americans who apparently do not approve of Congress’ performance and wish term limits were instituted, why do they continue to vote for their incumbent representatives over and over, and election after election? Will the people who expressed their disgust in these polls have the courage to take it a step further and seriously push for term limits? One approach that voters could take would be to vote against the incumbent in the primary. If enough people did this, there would still be a candidate from their chosen political party on the ballot. However, there is a danger attached to this idea, as Richard Mourdock discovered in Indiana. Just because he was able to defeat Richard Lugar in the primary, didn’t mean he would be able to win in the fall general election—and he didn’t.
Critics of term limits often say that if Congress had term limits, there would be a pool of less experienced members of Congress. While it is true that there probably would be less experienced men and women in Congress, this fact should not be seen as negative. In fact, in my opinion, the positive aspects of term limits in Congress would far outweigh the negative. New blood is needed in Congress and it is time for the old dead wood to be purged. In addition, every two years there is already quite a large group of freshman, newly elected congresspersons entering Congress. For the most part, none of them have legislative experience, but they somehow manage to get up to speed with the help of staff members and their colleagues. Moreover, even in our modern times, when persons of color and women have been elected more and more, Congress is still very much an exclusive club of old white men. Greater diversity in gender, race, age, and even third parties should be welcomed—and even championed.
Especially since the Supreme Court decision in U. S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, there have been limited options in instituting term limits in the United States. The two basic options include passing an amendment to the Constitution, or initiating state conventions, because both are permitted in Article V of the Constitution. However, as women’s rights activists discovered in the 1980’s (and in every session of Congress since that time), amendments to the Constitution are very difficult to get passed. Getting a term limits amendment to the Constitution passed would be difficult, if not impossible, because a three-fourths majority of members in Congress would have to agree that their terms would be limited. As I have already discussed, this is not likely to happen. However, Article V permits another method of putting term limits into place that would bypass Congress entirely. Two thirds of the states would have to call for a convention to debate the measure and three fourths of the states would have to ratify it (Qtd. by Larson 763). Although this method seems slightly more likely to happen than an amendment to the Constitution, the fact of the matter is that no one has ever tried the state convention process in the history of the United States.
When the Founding Fathers framed the Constitution, they did not include provisions for Congressional term limits largely because their vision was that citizen legislators would serve one or two terms and return home. And this is what happened until the beginning of the twentieth century. However, today, there is a large majority in Congress who are career legislators and completely out of touch with the people who elected them. Numerous polls show that Americans are dissatisfied with the performance of Congress and think that term limits would be a good idea. Therefore, now is the time that Americans must do these three things: Educate ourselves about what our legislators are doing in Congress, take our power and right to vote seriously, and begin the process of letting the people who govern us know that we are serious about bringing about changes, including term limits. I have no illusions that the process of making a significant change, such as term limits in Congress, will be easy, but I believe we must start somewhere and I believe the end result will be worth our effort.
Cillizza, Chris and Aaron Blake. “Why Dick Lugar Lost.” The Washington Post. 9 May 2012.
Web. 02 Aug. 2014.
In this web article, the authors analyze why long-time Republican incumbent, Richard Lugar lost his bid for a seventh term in the United States Senate against challenger Richard Mourdock in the primary race in the 2012 election. Lugar’s defeat not only sent shock waves through the State of Indiana but in the Senate where he was an influential and highly-regarded Senator.
Larson, Keith J. “Republican Revolutionaries and Tea Party Patriots: A Public Choice Analysis
of Congressional Term Limits.” St. John’s Law Review 86.4 (2012): 761-831. Business
Source Complete. Web. 26 July 2014.
In this 70-page article download from a South Texas College library database, Keith J.
Larson devotes considerable space to the historical precedents of term limits at the time of the American Revolution. In addition, he covers the time in the 1990’s when several states imposed term limits on their own Congress members, only to have it later struck down by a Supreme Court ruling. He also develops the public choice analysis which can predict which congresspersons will eventually support term limits; however, I did not utilize this information because it was beyond the parameters of my research paper.
Levin, Mark. The Liberty Amendments: Restoring the American Republic. New York: Threshold
Editions, 2013. Print.
The basic premise of this book is that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 feared, and tried to forestall, the Leviathan-like federal government that we have today. Levin points out that the founders placed two safeguards in the Constitution to remedy the kind of out-of-control government we have today. The first is the power given to Congress to legally amend the Constitution and the second is the provision given in Article Five of the Constitution where the states can change the Constitution without Congressional approval. Levin is a proponent of term limits for Congress and the Supreme Court.
Ruggles, Roger. Personal interview, by Linda Grinnell. 2014.
I conducted a face-to-face interview with Roger Ruggles, who was an Electrical Engineer and former CEO of several multi-million dollar electrical equipment control companies. He spent one year lobbying in Congress for a bill that would mandate stand-by power for buildings such as hospitals, and the law was passed. He knew and worked with many members of Congress during his different tenures as a CEO, and as a result, was well-informed on the questions that I asked him regarding term limits for Congress.
Winchester, Richard. “The Term Limits Question.” American Thinker. 7 Feb. 2014. Web. 02 Aug. 2014.
In this article, Richard Winchester is actually against imposing term limits on Congress. However, he does a very good job of presenting both sides of the issue and, in fact, this article seems to be a good example of a Rogerian argument because the author really tries to find common ground. In addition, he provides up-to-date information on polls that show what Americans really think of their representatives in Congress.
Sign the Convention of States Petition http://bit.ly/COSpetition and join the fight.