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Has Tom Coburn ever heard of Thomas Jefferson?

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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.

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7 Comments

  1. I read this odd little piece with interest. Having listened to Tim Coburn, I initially found myself wondering if the author had the same privilege. The faux contrast presented between Senator Coburn and Thomas Jefferson on this issue appeared contrived and yes, gratuitous. Senator Coburn spoke of retiring from the job, but not from public life. After rereading the article however, I realized that what was missing was an understanding of a calling.

    Nonetheless, I appreciate the attention given to this honorable Senator who has served with integrity and conviction. His relentless attempts to eliminate fraud, waste, redundancy and foolishness in the appropriations process will be dearly missed.

  2. Coburn will become some type of lobbyists for some rightwing think tank or something like that. They all do that in some capacity, repubs and dems alike… that’s why they’re all millionaires. Look how much money politicians spend to get elected to a job that doesn’t pay anywhere near what it cost them to get the job. There has to be other benefits but they all say it was a calling. I think that calling sounded like ca-ching ca-ching.

  3. One of Jefferson’s major concerns about America’s new constitution was that it provided no limit on the terms a President could serve. He feared it would lead to a monarchy or dictatorship.
    George Washington established the principle of leaving that office voluntarily after 8 years. Adams was turned out after 4 years and didn’t have the chance. Jefferson affirmed Washington’s example by stepping down after two terms. That precedent remained until FDR in the 1930s.
    While Jefferson served in a variety of capacities from Virginia legislator to President, it was always at the bidding of others. When he congratulated Adams on his 1796 election as President (and acknowledging his own defeat for that office), he wrote, “I have no ambition to govern men. It is a painful and thankless office.”
    Jefferson now blogs! Several times each week, he posts BRIEFLY on a variety of topics, including politics:
    http://ThomasJeffersonLeadership.com/blog/

  4. Mr. Baseball

    Patrick, I have to respectfully disagree with you oh the issue of term limits. While it sounds great in principle, the reality in today’s world is quite different. With the power and influence of incumbency in addition to the gerrymandering of districts, it gives an unfair advantage to the incumbent. Short of committing criminal acts, it’s virtually impossible for some incumbents to be voted out of office. Even if Senators and Congressmen appear to do a good job, the entrenchment of power over a prolonged period of time is not healthy for a democracy of republic. I would endorse terms limits for all members of congress. Two six year terms for the Senate and six two-year terms for the house. I would also want to see house members serve four-year terms with half the house up for election every two years.
    In addition, we should have 18-year limits for members of the Supreme Court with one justice being replaced every two years.
    Too many Supreme Court justices stay beyond the time when they can physically and mentally handle the job.
    If not for term limits, Ronald Reagan would have been elected to a third term when his senility was rapidly advancing, and Bill Clinton would have had a third term which also would have been a detriment to the country.

  5. Mr. B: Term limits aren’t going to make it easier to bring significant change to gerrymandered congressional districts. The dominant party in such districts will continue to prevail.

    And the bottom line in all of this is that term limits prevent voters from re-electing popular incumbents. Unpopular incumbents never get re-elected.

    The Founding Fathers had a choice of retaining the term-limits provision in the Articles of Confederation. They chose not to.

    If an incumbent wants to run for re-election, his or her right to do so should not be precluded by a law or constitutional amendment drafted by people who, for the most part, don’t represent my state or district.

    And, as I said in my post, term limits 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.

    Many proponents of term limits (not including you, of course) strike me as the kind of people who can’t bother to sort out the issues and instead opt for the notion that we should “throw them all out.”

  6. Mr. B: One last thought: Do term limits expand or diminish the political rights of the electorate?

    The answer should be obvious.

    • Campaign finance reform is the answer. To much beholden to big monied and special interest over the business of the nation.

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