Monday, May 15, 2006

Terms Limits a Well-Intentioned Nonsense

An idea that gets a lot of play is that of term limits for elected officials.

I hear it on talk radio a lot. You can see it on just about any discussion group or message board. When people really start quantifying the number of things wrong with our government, invariably someone will volunteer that maybe the solution is term-limits.

If you're in agreement with this idea, then I've hit my target audience perfectly, and I'll only require a little of your time. Sit back, relax, and let me share my views on the subject. You see, I think people who reflexively offer term limits as the solution aren't thinking.

Once you get beyond the rosy warm feeling you get when you think about Ted Kennedy working in the private sector, things don't hold up to any sort of deep examination. Term limits got their start thanks to none other than the Republican party. Allow me to go back, way back in time.

After General Washington served, there was a long-standing practice, really a precedent, that no President served longer than two terms. The founders considered the topic, but concluded that the specter - one man becoming like a king - was too chimerical to be taken seriously, and too insulting to the wisdom and energy of the American people.

And so it went until FDR. Unable to beat him, the GOP instituted Presidential term limits, and so we have the phenomenon of modern Presidencies. Presidents who serve two terms always have more productive and successful first terms. Returned to office for their stellar service, their second term becomes a battle as Congress generally asserts itself and becomes some degree of impediment to the President's agenda. Our current President has been impeded by Democrat enemies, the press, and leaky sources in his own administration, although this is not unique relative to other Presidents. Reagan had Iran-Contra in his second term, and low approval ratings. Clinton was impeached, although this was his own doing; I'm not sure that more needs to be said of Clinton. This creates an impression - a wrong one, I might add - that second terms are "lame duck" because that's just the way it is.

The dynamic between the Executive and the Legislative is the reason, not because second terms are inherently hamstrung. The unintended consequence of term limits is that the right and proper balance of power shifts - imperceptibly - creating this phenomenon. An energetic and active Executive is necessary for things as serious as the defense of the nation and as mundane as the proper functioning of the federal government.

Beyond the practical problem of term limits, there's a fundamental philosophical issue with it, namely: an infringement on the people's Liberty. Suppose there is a long and protracted war, much like the one we face against Islamic terror. Suppose again that the incumbent President was prosecuting this war with great success, such that our country didn't fear being attacked as much as right after the beginning of the conflict. Because of the term limit, that President will be asked to leave after his second term, thankyouverymuch, and on-the-job training begins for the new President. The People's right to elect whom they wish has been infringed.

Since Congress won't vote themselves term limits, there's an improper balance between the branches. Furthermore, experience has shown that congressional term limits are a bad idea too. I'll look into it further, but my recollection is that Nebraska has these in its Constitution (see:, and faces the unique challenge of a majority of freshmen legislators, given its unicameral legislature.

True to my pen-name, I think that Presidential term limits should be abolished; this should be a part of any good and proper Federalist platform. So as not to appear to be a Bush apologist, I'd even suggest waiting until after he leaves office, or excluding him from eligibility.

I'll close with a suggestion to anyone who still thinks term limits would be a good idea: term limits exist today. It's called voting for someone else. Senator Kennedy, after all, hasn't suspended elections and named himself "Senator for Life." That the people of Massachusetts keep electing him is their choice, or fault, depending on how you look at it.

Your obedient and faithful servant,
A. Hamilton, aka The Monarchist

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