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Monday, January 6, 2014

Term Limits Temptation: Creating the Pretext for a Con-Con

By:  George Detweiler
Today in 2010 many newly-awakened activists are calling for term limits and a constitutional convention (often referred to as a con-con). The John Birch Society has been leading the fight against these tempting "cure-alls" for several decades now. 

This article, "Term Limits Temptation: Creating the Pretext for a Con-Con" by George Detweiler is a valuable summary of the arguments against term limits and a constitutional convention, and will be useful for constitutionalists as they fend off this new round of enthusiasm for term limits and a con-con.  It was originally published in the June 10, 1996 issue of The New American magazine.

Throw the bums out! The idea is appealing to Americans who see their elected officials becoming less and less in touch with conservative government. The idea is also not new. Concerning term limits, which were considered by the Founding Fathers during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist, No. 72: "Nothing appears more plausible at first sight, nor more ill-founded upon close inspection."

The quick-fix nature of term limitation is superficially appealing not only because of the perceived speed with which it appears to remove an offending official, but also because it does not require much thought, research, or analysis on the part of the voters. By throwing everyone out of office after a fixed number of terms, we rid ourselves of the task of deciding who is doing a good job and who is not. The finest and the worst are discarded by the calendar.

What those who are attracted by the concept of term limits generally fail to understand is that the promoters seek, not specific term limits, but general term limits, which would restrict the voter franchise and emasculate the power of the ballot. The goal -- ridding our government of the bad while keeping the top performers -- would be sacrificed on the altar of expediency.

First Proposal
While the term limits concept was considered during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, it was rejected by the delegates, who instead provided for short terms of office -- two years for the House of Representatives, four years for the Presidency, and six years for the Senate. James Madison, who opposed term limits at the Constitutional Convention, recorded in his notes the words of a fellow delegate, Roger Sherman: "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." It is difficult to challenge Sherman’s logic: If a politician were not eligible to run for re-election because of term limits, what incentive would he have to please the voters? The answer, of course, is that he would have little such incentive, and he would be even more prone than before to fall prey to the special interests in Washington.

For proof of this one need look no further than the special lame-duck session of Congress that was held after the November 1994 elections for the explicit purpose of passing the unpopular General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) treaty. It mattered little that most Americans were strongly opposed to this treaty; the elections had already been held and the congressmen who were rejected by the voters did not have to worry about facing another re-election anyway. What did matter was the intensity of the GATT lobbying effort. Is it any wonder that the position of the new world order architects triumphed over that of grassroots Americans?

Fortunately, the Founding Fathers recognized that frequent elections are the best way to keep politicians responsive, and they made the elections most frequent for that part of the federal government which is closest to the people -- the House of Representatives. They fully understood that the greatest restraint on any public official is the realization that he must face the voters for re-election, and be judged on his performance in office.

Because of the wisdom of the Founders, America has benefited from the services of many great lawmakers whose long and fruitful careers would have been cut short had term limits been in effect. Those lawmakers include John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, Sam Houston, James Madison, and Daniel Webster.
Few lawmakers have as much political clout as the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, yet Speaker Tom Foley (D-WA) was defeated in 1994 by a political novice. Similarly, great power rests with the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, yet Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL) was defeated in 1994 by a political novice. No term limits law was necessary in these cases. Foley’s and Rostenkowski’s constituents limited their terms by way of the ballot box.

A changing of the guard began with the election of 124 freshmen members of Congress in 1992 -- without mandated term limits. It continued in 1994 with a great power shift in Congress and statehouses throughout the land -- without mandated term limits. In January 1995, 87 freshmen representatives and 11 freshmen senators took their oaths of office, demonstrating the constitutional authority of voters to limit the terms of their specific congressmen. At this writing 47 incumbent representatives and 14 incumbent senators have already announced that they will retire rather than seek election in November -- all changes wrought without mandated term limits… FINISH READING =>