Has Tom Coburn ever heard of Thomas Jefferson?
In announcing his pending retirement from the U.S. Senate yesterday, Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican, said this: “Our Founders saw public service and politics as a calling rather than a career.”
What nonsense! More than a few of our Founding Fathers saw politics as both a calling and a career.
Take Thomas Jefferson, for example. For 40 years, beginning when he was 26 years of age, Jefferson held one public office after another — state legislator, member of Congress, governor of Virginia, secretary of state, minister to France, vice president and president.
Even during the brief intervals when Jefferson wasn’t in office, he was pulling strings (along with James Madison) to aid in the emergence of the Democratic-Republican Party. In short, the man lived and breathed politics. Public office was not just some avocation he indulged now and then out of a sense of civic obligation.
The disdain for “career politicians” typified by Tom Coburn’s gratuitous remarks often is coupled with advocacy of term limits — a foolish and unfair idea if there ever was one.
It’s too bad that Ronald Reagan isn’t around anymore to disabuse today’s conservatives of their affinity for term limits.
In his presidential farewell address in 1989, Reagan rightly argued that terms limits are “a preemption of the people’s right to vote for whomever they want as many times as they want.”
Granted, Reagan was talking in favor of repeal of the 22nd Amendment, which imposes term limits on presidents, but the principle he articulated logically applies to all elected officials. And it’s amazing that more Americans don’t recognize that simple principle:
Legislation or a constitutional amendment that imposes term limits at any level of government would merely diminish the political power of ordinary voters.
Besides, in a sense, we already have term limits. They’re called “elections.” We can invoke them to limit the terms of public officials whenever we want — or not limit the terms, if we so choose. Why would we saddle voters with an arbitrary barrier to their re-electing officials they want to re-elect? After all, unpopular incumbents never get re-elected anyway. The absence of term limits doesn’t force us to re-elect people we don’t want to re-elect.
Term limits also amount to breaking faith with the nation’s Founding Fathers. The drafting of our Constitution was born of an effort to correct the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation. And the architects of the Constitution specifically omitted term limits, despite their having been included in the Articles.
There are numerous other reasons why term limits are undesirable. They would eliminate the good politicians along with the bad. They would enhance the power of bureaucrats, staffers and lobbyists. They would result in a costly loss of knowledge and experience in government.