THE FOLLY OF TERM LIMITS
October 2, 2013
Term limits aim at reducing the mischief a corrupt government can inflict upon the people. I would strongly support them – if they worked. But they don’t.
To use a medical metaphor, they address the symptom rather than the disease. To drive the metaphor home, term limits are a band-aid on a severed limb. We could say term limits are better than nothing, but they are worse. They are a drug to make you feel good while your insides rot out. You get my drift?
The malady is a too-powerful government, which, because power corrupts, encourages corruption.
Originally, the US Constitution had no term limits. They were not unknown to the Founders who chose instead to construct a system of “checks and balances” so that men of ambition would squabble amongst themselves rather than maul the People.
A Case Study of Term Limits
It took 160 years before term limits made it into the Constitution. The 22nd Amendment (1951) limited the term of the President. It was passed in answer to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), whose unprecedented four terms were power-grab after power-grab. At the time, a majority of Americans continued to re-elect FDR as he handed out goodies and blamed “greedy business” but he also disgusted enough hard-working Americans that his power was reined in … after he was dead. Few had the courage to face him during his life but those few were surrounded by timid Republicans.
After FDR was dead, the Republicans got very brave and decided to rein in the power of the Presidency. Term limits, that’s the ticket!
Yet, the current Administration has amassed more power more quickly than FDR dreamed possible. And if you are a fan of the current resident of the White House, consider the power wielded by his predecessor. Depending on your preference, eight years under either regime feels like 20 under FDR.
It certainly does feel good to know that the current President, or his predecessor, can serve no more than eight years, but has that term limit really reined in power and reduced corruption?
Another Case Study
California Prop 140 (1990) limited Sacramento legislators to a term of no more than 14 years. In 2004, the Public Policy Institute of California issued a report on its effect.
There were some internal and procedural adjustments but the report concludes that the hoped-for “citizen-legislators” never materialized. Worse, it had no effect on the corruption of special interests. The amount of money increased but morphed into new forms preying on the inexperience of newly-elected wide-eyed legislators fresh from city and county posts, ready to hit the jackpot in Sacramento.
That’s the corruption of those going into office, but the corruption going out could even be worse. Some will be ethical, of course, and no longer fearing the next election, begin to truly do what they think is best for the People. Others about to term out are going to spend their lame-duck time feathering their own futures.
A lobbyist in Sacramento (who used to work for a legislator who was termed out) believes even the virtuous new legislator is victimized by the system. "[T]erm limits,” he told me, “have effectively given too much power to the lobbyists and staff members. Because so many legislators are inexperienced, they wind up relying on others for policy data."
The problem, he says, is not limits on terms but that the system is so complicated, it makes it difficult for “citizen-legislators” to even start a campaign. The legislature is no longer “a bunch old white men;” he said, “there is diversity, more women and minorities, but they are still mostly from the top of the pyramid. I’d like to see some truck drivers [in the legislature].”
The problem is that Government has become too complex, micro-managing our daily lives. “It doesn’t need to be this complicated,” the lobbyist said. “But as long as it is this complicated, we need experienced people.”
Term limits, it can be argued, has encouraged irresponsibility in California. The Golden State once was prosperous, but since 1990 has descended into poverty at an accelerated rate. Many people reading this writing escaped from that once-glorious state. How many would like to return?
Since 2004, there have been numerous attempts to change the term limits law. Folks know there is something wrong with it. Finally, in 2012 the people passed Proposition 28 to reduce the time a person may serve in the state legislature from 14 to 12 years. Same-old same-old. Folks really need to learn from their mistakes.
Fixing the Real Problem
If term limits do not reduce corruption or the power that encourages it, the answer is to make the posts less powerful and less profitable.
The US Constitution envisioned exactly that; the power of each post limited by other “departments” of government doing their jobs too. Not only would each branch of the National government (legislative, executive, judiciary) jealously guard against encroachment from the other branches, but also each level of government (national, state, county) would protect its sovereignty as well.
Congress, the House and Senate, are scorned by most Americans and for good reason. They have not been doing their job. If those elected actually owed their election to those they are supposed to represent, Congress would start working again.
Originally, US Senators represented each State but the 17th Amendment forces them to curry favor with the media, moneyed interests and Senate Leadership, to get the favorable press and money needed for a huge campaign. The States are no longer represented, and that whole level of government is no more. It is little wonder that the states go hat in hand to a hugely powerful national government in DC. Repeal the 17th Amendment.
Currently, too many members of the US House of Representatives owe their elections to the House leadership, “leadership PACs” and again the moneyed interests. Their election depends on favor from people in DC rather than people from their own district.
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For the House of Representatives, amend the Constitution such that a one member cannot represent more than, say, 60,000 citizens. Instead of 435 members, the House will have 5000 or more members. Yes, we will have to buy more chairs and desks, but that’s cheap for Josephine County and Coos and Klamath Counties to each have their own representative. Jackson County would have almost two, sharing one with Josephine. Multnomah County, home to Portland, would have a dozen. No representative will need tons of money from Party Leadership or unions or fat corporations to campaign. His campaign will cost $40 to $80 thousand to buy ads on local radio and knock on a lot of doors. The people in his district will be his “special interest.”.
(Since writing this, I have become aware of a movement in California to expand their Assembly similarly.
Term limits are needed when our representatives no longer represent us. When “term limits” are needed, we have a more serious problem. A feel-good band-aid will not fix it.
© 2013 John Chambers - All Rights Reserved
John Chambers has a standard response to anyone who questions his credentials for writing a study guide for the Constitution. “Zero,” he says. “I am a citizen who took an interest. I have no more intelligence or education than anyone else.”
His father might tell you that Mr. Chambers’ interest began when he was twelve. That summer, he sat young Johnny down and had him copy the Constitution into one of those composition books with the squiggly black-and-white covers. On the left-hand page, Johnny would copy the document in its original language. On the right-hand side, he translated it into modern English.
Years later, John Chambers was asked by a friend who runs the California Ranch School, a private high school, if John would do some writing for the school. While at the school, a few of the students asked Mr. Chambers if he could teach them something about the Constitution. He could.
The first class was to be strictly a reading of the document but it soon became apparent that was not enough. John remembered his own 12-year-old struggles. He may have read the Constitution, but his life experience was not enough to grasp the concepts. “I knew the words,” he says, “but couldn’t sing the tune.” As that first class read through the document, Mr. Chambers got them to give examples from their own lives.
The next class of students had a study guide with many of the difficult words defined and some examples for teenage lives. But the study guide had weak points still. It improved in that class and the next.
Mr. Chambers was soon teaching courses to neighbors and as an extension course at the local community college. With each class given, Mr. Chambers would see the weaknesses of his study guide, and its strengths. After five years of revisions, the study-guide became as stable as any textbook and became more broadly available.
Today, he runs the Josephine County Constitution Study Group in southern Oregon.
John's book: "The Constituion of the United States: A Study Guide" - Second Edition, can be ordered here.