Term Limits Essay, Research Paper
There is a movement sweeping the United States that state legislatures, by virtue of the Tenth Amendment, have the constitutional power to establish a new qualification for federal office, specifically, a restriction on the number of terms their congressional delegations may serve in Washington. The legal battleground covers two sections of the Constitution. Proponents of term limits will highlight Article I, Section 4, which they say gives each state the authority to prescribe the “time, place and manner” of congressional elections, therefore delegating to the local level the rules of who gets to run. Opponents will counter that such an interpretation of the Constitution is much too broad. They will also point out that the exclusive qualifications for members of the House of Representatives and the Senate are explicitly set forth in Article I, Sections 2 and 3 – members of Congress must be at least 25 years old and citizens of the U.S. for at least seven years; Senators must be at least 30 years old and citizens for at least nine years; both Senators and Representatives must be residents in the state. Plainly, they reiterate, there is no reference to term limits. Opponents of term limits argue that Americans have always had the power to turn incumbents out of office – by voting. It’s not that simple, says Cleta Deatherage Mitchell, the general counsel for the Term Limits Legal “Incumbents have such enormous advantages that it makes the whole notion of competitive elections a mockery,” she says. “It almost takes a national temper tantrum to dislodge incumbents”. Meanwhile, Hill points to the existence of one federal-term limit – the two terms of the President. “The nation has survived, indeed flourished,” she adds. Furthermore, there is another benefit to shorter terms. “When you have open seats, women and minorities have a better chance of getting elected.”
But the problem with this logic is that the 1787 Convention did delegate to the United States the power to establish uniform qualifications for candidates for federal office. The Constitution requires a specified period of citizenship, residency in the state represented, and attainment of a certain age. The Convention also established the length of terms for all elective offices, but voted against any limits on re-eligibility or the number of consecutive terms that would be allowed.
The absence of term limits in the Constitution was not an oversight, Proposals to limit elected officers to a specified number of terms were introduced at least three times during the 1787 Convention but were rejected, not because anyone deemed term limits to be a state prerogative, but because terms limitation would be redundant, For the most part, short terms would encourage more accountability than limited terms. In his notes on the Convention, James Madison records: “Frequent elections are necessary to preserve the good behavior of rulers. They also tend to give permanency to the Government, by preserving that good behavior, because it ensures their re-election.” Two-year terms for the House and other constitutional restraints limited the amount of mischief federal officers might be inclined to indulge in. Federal powers, being few and defined, were well understood, and elected officials who exceeded their mandate, or who abused those powers, would have fully expected to be – and indeed were – limited by their electors to a single term. An impeachment process was also established in the Constitution to facilitate the immediate discharge of more flagrant abusers. According to Convention historian Max Farrand, “Mr. Madison observed that to prevent a man from holding office longer than he ought, he may for malpractice be impeached and removed; – he is not for any ineligibility.” Thus there was no need for punishing the good with the bad by arbitrarily limiting the terms of everyone in service. Moreover, a term-limit clause would have meant that the federal charter was ambiguous or weak, and that gray areas of federal activity had to be compensated for by dumping every official who had served long enough to learn how to enrich himself in the dark shadows of the system. The Constitution has no real gray areas, no shadows, no ambiguities. But because the anti-federalists provoked imaginary concerns, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay went to great lengths to explain exactly what was intended in all seven articles of the new Constitution. The efforts of these three men resulted in a compilation of enduring political analysis, The Federalist Papers. From this authoritative resource we learn much about the powers delegated to our federal government and those reserved to the states. According to Alexander Hamilton, the states did not reserve the power to determine qualifications for federal office. In The Federalist, #60, he explained: “The state’s authority would be expressly restricted to the regulation of the times, the places, and the manner, of elections. The qualifications of the persons who may choose or be chosen, as has been remarked upon other occasions, are defined and fixed in the Constitution, and are unalterable by the legislature”. In Article I, Section 5 the Constitution further reserves to Congress the power to judge the qualifications of its members.
Any restriction that is “fixed in the Constitution,” can be “unfixed” only by an amendment. But the adoption of a term limit amendment would signal that disobedience to the Constitution is a forgivable sin, that a strict construction of its meaning is not necessary, that the Constitution does not really mean what it says, that impeachment is unthinkable, and that bad conduct will be tolerated for a specified number of terms. After all, if legislators were held to their oaths of office, there would not be a need for term limits. Such an amendment would drive the final nail into the coffin of an irresponsible electorate. The accountability provided at the ballot box would in effect be ceded to government, and our freedom to vote would be forever limited. The stabilizing role of the Senate, already badly weakened by the 17th Amendment, would be reduced by term limits to a perpetual lame-duck assembly. At any given time, many of its members would be lame ducks who would have no accountability to the voters during their final six years. Accountability in the House would also fall victim to lame-duckery. Report cards on spending, such as the highly effective TRIM (Tax Reform IMmediately) program, would have no impact on House members serving their last term. A large number of lame-duck House members, who at all times would be coasting piously through their final two years, would be immune to the public response to their spending records as reported in the national TRIM Bulletins.
Our nation’s Founders had great faith in a free and informed populace. They expected length of service to parallel the devotion and patriotism of those elected. At one point during the 1787 Convention, Governor Morris arose to comment on a term-limit proposal that had just been defeated: “The ineligibility proposed by the clause as it stood tended to destroy the great motive to good behavior, the hope of being rewarded by a re-appointment. It was saying to him, make hay while the sun shines.” In The Federalist, #72, Hamilton noted that “one of the ill effects of the exclusion from re-election would be a diminution of the inducements to good behavior. There are few men who would not feel much less zeal in the discharge of a duty when they were conscious that the advantage of the station with which it was connected must be relinquished at a determinate period, than when they were permitted to entertain a hope of obtaining, by meriting, a continuance of them. This position will not be disputed so long as it is admitted that the desire of reward is one of the strongest incentives of human conduct; or that the best security for the fidelity of mankind is to make their interest coincide with their duty”. There is nothing new about the inherent dishonesty of man when armed with a little power. That is why there is a Constitution. It was designed to allow the leaders enough force to defend the people, but not enough to enslave them. When the constitutionally fixed force of government is exceeded, either by intent or neglect, the people suffer, Today we suffer a twofold tragedy: the intentional usurpation of governing power by a few, compounded by the neglect of many.