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Term limits are an undemocratic (small “d”) idea

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Ordinarily, we hear a lot of buzz about term limits mainly in election years. But I’ve noticed that the idea is gaining considerable circulation these days, though the next time we vote is not until next year.
Whatever. I can argue against this nonsense on any day of any year.
Term limits are a terrible idea. Even Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of modern Republican conservatism, said so.

In his presidential farewell address in 1989, Reagan rightly argued that term 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.

But none of that likely matters to the crowd to whom the recent political squabbles in Washington seem to be a good reason to throw the rascals out.

Oh, well, at least the rest of us can take solace in the fact that only a constitutional amendment, rather than simple legislation, can impose term limits on Congress. Constitutional amendments are not so easily adopted, and the lengthy process might give us time to resurrect Ronald Reagan’s argument against such nonsense. 

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3 Comments

  1. Pat, why tarnish an otherwise rational argument by citing (and returning to) Reagan’s vacuous commentary? By that time he was no more than a genial mouthpiece for his handlers, and their motives were unabashedly partisan.

    I agree, however, that term limits are not in our national interest, including for the presidency. Mostly for the reasons you gloss over.

    I am curious about your thoughts on recall elections – are they helpful at the state level, and could recalls ever go national?

  2. Shawn Robinson

    No one likes term limits even their party benefits from having an additional term. Everyone likes term limits when their party is out of power because of popular incumbents. In practice, term limits could be just fine. An incumbent politician could obtain a leadership position in his party and never be removed because of the excuse of experience while simultaneously shifting an undue amount of state revenue to his district for a long period. While term limits are unappealing in theory they might save us from imperial presidencies, senators who are only ejected because of their incumbency and politicians who think a political office belongs to their party.

  3. Joseph Auclair

    Actually, they are a democratic (small “d”) idea going back to the Ancient World, Athens in particular, like selection of officials by lot and actual legislation, and even judicial and executive decision, by in-person assemblies of the people.

    In-person assemblies of the people are a feature of democracy that Madison personally bragged in The Federalist did not characterize any of the republican governments of the United States, either state or federal.

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