Term Limits – A Dangerous Freedom

Political pundits and Washington insiders from both sides of the aisle differ on many things, but almost all agree on one undeniable truth – 2016 is a year dominated by the outsider. Hillary Clinton may win the general election but it won’t be because she isn’t pushed to the limit by forces she probably didn’t count on a year ago.

Trump has run almost solely on his credentials as the ultimate outsider and the two senators still in the hunt are hardly considered mainstream in either of their respective parties. So if Trump, Cruz, or Sanders become president, does that mean the United States will see a much needed and lasting course correction? One need only point to the Reagan revolution and look at the last twelve or so years and see how quickly things can revert back to the norm, or worse.

So what offers a better hope of ensuring real and lasting change for our Democratic Republic? For at least the last twenty years a number of voices have said that congressional term limits is the answer.

Thomas Jefferson in his famous letter to James Madison wrote that direct representation “has it’s evils … the principal of which is the turbulence to which it is subject. But weigh this against the oppressions of monarchy, and it becomes nothing … Even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs. I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

Though term limits did not appear in the Constitution, George Washington, who could have been King had he so minded, realized the danger to the republic if he served a third term. After him, only two presidents even considered running past eight years in office. Ulysses S. Grant did, but his own party balked at nominating him again. Theodore Roosevelt also tried and failed. Following FDR’s four terms, the 22nd Amendment was ratified, ensuring that could never happen again.

The original intent of our Founding Fathers, which has since been ignored by most modern politicians, is citizen representation. Men like John Adams returned to their chosen professions, glad to pass the mantle on to others. They gave a few years of their life to do the business of the Federal Government and then returned home to work their farms and businesses.

Too many times we have seen a freshman senator, full of ideals, quickly become absorbed by the monolith our federal government has become. Though set up to allow a peaceful revolution every two years, incumbents take advantage of the power of their office to effectively shut out anyone who threatens their position and power.

Since 1996 there has been a growing tide of term limits initiatives on the state level. That year, Maine’s term limits ensured 26 members of its House and four senators were ineligible to run again. California saw 22 ineligible. In 1998, time ran out in eight states for 206 members of the House and Senate. By 2002, 45% of Missouri’s Legislature, 71% of the Michigan Senate, and 322 legislators in a total of 11 states termed out.

If this can be accomplished on the state level it follows it can on the national level. However, unseating such entrenched power is not easy. According to the government transparency website, govtrack.us, since 1973 there have been 28,537 bills related to term limits. To date, few of these has even come close to clearing committee. Over 10,000 bills are considered by each House on a given year and about 4% become law. The odds are against it, but it can be done.

Why is this our nation’s best hope for change that is more than a slogan? Term limits means legislators go into office knowing there is an equally limited time to fulfill whatever they promised to do before their electors decide it’s time to give someone else a shot. This would also motivate freshman candidates to finish whatever work got their predecessor elected in the first place. Or, it would offer voters a real chance to replace those they elected who proved to be unwilling or unable to carry through with their promises.

In Jefferson’s letter to Madison he spoke of Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem – “ prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.” Perhaps enforced term limits might protect our republic from that freedom eroding even more.