Term Limits: Explained

What Are Term Limits and Why Do We Need Them?

Our recent article on Citisun entitled “Trump Vows To Drain The Swamp In Washington D.C.” sparked interest, and raised a question worth exploring further, regarding term limits. Trump vowed repeatedly during his campaign to see to it that a Constitutional amendment would be added to impose term limits to all members of Congress.  In response to our article on draining the swamp, a comment / question by a Facebook poster asked:

“So corruption in DC is simply a matter of time in office? You can’t be corrupt in your first term, and must be corrupt in later terms? That’s the theory behind term limits?”  

Fair question! Imposing term limits, also known as “rotation in office,” dates back to ancient Greece and Roman times.  Term limits never intended to be the sole measure to prevent all government corruption; citizens back then and now use term limits as one of many weapons in an arsenal to help prevent government corruption and tyranny.    

Yes, we can all agree corruption occurs within the first term of office. But common sense tells us, temptation increases over time. As politicians enter further into what they call “public service,” or “civic duty,” they naturally make powerful connections, and from those connections they derive power themselves.  While power can and is used for good purposes, the temptations never cease. As freshmen and sophomores, politicians are still in touch with the roots of their electorate, and they’re more willing to fight for their principles; as upper classmen, the self-serving ego tends to take over, and the myriad pressures of deal-making and compromise often rule the day.  

Our forefathers knew this from personal experience. Lord Acton, grandson of a Neopolitan admiral John Acton, famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”  Systematic term limits, imposed by the people, breaks the cycle of power. By design, the term limit is imposed at a point that intersects the time that absolute power could corrupt a politician absolutely and / or the point in time when the politician, if corrupted, could be removed before doing further damage. 

We can agree that inordinate temptations exist in goverment, and the higher up the government ladder one climbs, the greater the temptations. From a local law enforcement official turning down a bribe to expunge someone’s record to a Congressman doing the right thing by denying a shady lobbyist’s campaign contribution in exchange for special favors, temptation is a guaranteed constant in politics.  In a perfect world, all elected officials could deny those temptations their entire career; in the real world, politicians are human, and humans can and do break under pressure. 

Since our first article on “Drain The Swamp” was published, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) have announced their plan to introduce a Constitutional amendment that will impose term limits for both Congressmen and Senators. In a joint op-ed for The Washington Post, the two Republican firebrands said that term limits would be an effective way for the new Republican administration to “drain the swamp.” 

The case for term limits, in bulletpoint form:

  • Special interests oppose term limits because they do not want to lose their valuable investments in incumbent legislators. Many are organized to extract programs, subsidies, and regulations from the federal government — to use the law, in other words, as a lever to benefit their own constituencies or harm their rivals.
  • Term limits counterbalance incumbent advantages. Congressional term limits are a necessary corrective to inequalities which inevitably hinder challengers and aid incumbents. The turnover rate for House incumbents who attempt reelection typically is below 10 percent. This is in stark contrast to the first century of America’s government, when long-term congressional incumbency was rare and Members often voluntarily chose to leave Washington and return home. 
  • Term limits secure Congress’s independent judgment. In one of the few cases where Congress itself has established term limits, service on the House and Senate intelligence Committees is limited on the grounds that long-term membership might cause Members to develop a loyalty to the intelligence bureaucracy that would undermine their ability to exercise critical and independent judgment over it.
  • Term limits are a reality check.Term limits also would provide inescapable, bracing reminders of what life in the real world is like. 

Term Limits Started With George Washington

Our first U.S. President George Washington, refused to run for a third term. He in effect, started the tradition of informal presidential term limits by refusing to run (originally he claimed he did not want to run in the first place, much less for a second term). The short-lived Confederate States of America adopted a six-year term for their president and vice-president and barred the president from seeking reelection. That innovation was endorsed by many American politicians after the American Civil War, most notably by Rutherford B. Hayes in his inaugural address.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (president 1933 – 1945) was the first and only American president to break Washington’s tradition successfully. He died in office a few months after starting his fourth term. This gave rise to a successful move in Congress to formalize the traditional two-term limit by amending the U.S. Constitution. As ratified in 1951, the Twenty-Second Amendment provides that “no person shall be elected to the office of President more than twice”.1 


References and Further Reading On Term Limits:

Term Limits In The United States, by contibutors, Wikipedia

Term Limits: The Only Way To Clean Up Congress, by Dan Greenberg, The Heritage Foundation

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