Sunday, July 14, 2013

Thoughts on Congressional Term Limits

A continuation from my article five post yesterday, should there be term limits for representatives and senators?  While it sounds like a good idea on its surface, I also consider why the founding fathers did not write term limits into the Constitution of the United States.

The men who wrote our constitution were familiar with term limits, many had studied the ancient democracies of the world of which many included some sort of office rotation, either by law, or by tradition.  Some of our colonial assemblies also employed term limits.  Thomas Jefferson proposed term limits, "to prevent every danger which might arise to American freedom by continuing too long in office the members of the Continental Congress".  And George Mason said (or wrote), "nothing is so essential to the preservation of a Republican government as a periodic rotation".  It wasn't just the Virginians who embraced term limits, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania also embrace term limits and executive rotation.  Not all of our founders are so well documented, but they had just overthrown a perpetual monarch and desired to set up a form of limited government, it would not be unreasonable to think that many would consider term limits a good idea. The Articles of Confederation included term limits for the president of the congress, "no person be allowed to serve in the office of president more than one year in any term of three years"

So, why were term limits left out?  None of our founders left a note explaining this, so we can only speculate. One reason was tradition, elected colonial assemblymen generally didn't serve many consecutive terms, they had farms and families to tend to, it just wasn't practical to be a perpetual politician.  Paragraph one, Section two, Article one, of the Constitution of the United States is often cited as the reason why term limits were not needed.  It seems logical that the two year turn over of the house through direct elections was, at least at the time, an adequate solution to ensure periodic rotation.
The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.
I tend to agree with what I think of as the decision of delegates and states who signed then ratified the Constitution of the United States.  Every two years, the vast majority of the United States Congress can be replaced.  The ballot box is the most democratic method of term limits.  So why doesn't it happen.  The short answer is, it does, at least every once in a while.  The mid-term elections in 2010 saw a large portion of the congress replaced, as it did a few years before in 2006.  Polls show that 75% of Americans support term limits in general, but when it comes to those who represent them, they still generally prefer the incumbents.  I suppose it is easy to support term limits for the other guy.

So, should there be congressional term limits?  I'm not really sure, I suppose it would depend on what the limits are, the people are entitled to effective representation, which could be curtailed with limits or durations that are too short, but very lengthy limits could have their own pitfalls.  Perhaps I will consider the ideal term limits in the future.

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