Term Limits In US Government Essay Research


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Author: Polka
24.11.2010
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Term Limits In U.S. Government Essay, Research Paper

Mark P. Petracca’s idea that “government should be kept as

near to the people as possible chiefly through frequent elections and

rotation-in-office” is quite common in early republican thought and

generally agreed upon by the America’s revolutionary thinkers.

Although the debate over limiting legislative terms dates back to the

beginnings of political science, it was not until the 1990’s that the

doctrine began to be taken seriously when voters started to approve

term limit initiatives (Sinclair 203). Petracca’s statement captures

a significant aspect of the democratic process- that every citizen

retains the privilege to participate in the political system, yet his

inclusion of “rotation-in-office” can both support and hinder such a

privilege. This will be shown by discussing the views of America’s

founders, term limits legislation in Washington State, California, and

Oklahoma, political mobilization of national groups, and the opinions

of congressmen concerning the matter.

Term limitation is not a strictly modern topic. Its roots

date back to the creation of Republican thought and democratic theory

of ancient Greece and Rome, and also aroused debates amongst the

founding fathers of the United States (Sinclair 14). For the most

part, the Antifederalists supported rotation-in-office because they

feared its elimination, paired with the extensive powers given to

Congress by the Constitution, would make the “federal rulers

…masters, not servants.” On the other hand, the Federalists felt

that the separation of powers in the federalist system served as a

viable check on ambition and tyrannical government; therefore,

rotation seemed unnecessary and was not mentioned in the Constitution

(Peek 97).

Melancton Smith, of New York, is considered the

Antifederalist’s most well-spoken and conscious supporter of

rotation-in-office. In a speech given in June of 1788 which called

for a constitutional amendment to solve the “evil” of the proposed

Senate, Smith endorsed the point that rotation-in-office could be used

as a check on the abuse of power and tyranny by proposing, rotation

…as the best possible mode of affecting a remedy. The amendment

will not only have the tendency to defeat any plots, which may be

formed against liberty and the authority of the state governments, but

will be the best means to extinguish the factions which often prevail,

and which are sometimes fatal in legislative bodies (Foley 23).” New

York’s “Brutus” also advocated rotation in the Senate, but he did so

on grounds that more people would be given an opportunity to serve

their government instead of a select few with lifetime membership. He

felt that in addition to bringing a greater number of citizens forward

to serve their country, it would force those who had served to return

to their respective states and become more informed of the condition

and politics of their constituencies (Foley 25). Both Smith and Brutus

agreed that once an individual was elected to office his removal would

be difficult, except in the rare occurrence that his outright

misconduct would constitute grounds for dismissal. Sharing the

Antifederalist doctrine of the dangers of permanent government, Brutus

suggested that, “it would be wise to determine that a senator should

not be eligible after he had served for the period assigned by the

constitution for a certain number of years (Foley 26).”

Although John Adams was a devout Federalist, he maintained

that rotation, as well as frequent elections, would be necessary in

order to keep government as near to the people as possible. Adams

expressed these two beliefs in a speech given just before the American

Revolution in which he proposed holding annual elections of

representatives (Peek 101). He also compared men in a society with

rotation-in-office to bubbles on the sea which “rise,…break, and to

that sea return”; Adams later develops his thought by adding, “This

will teach them the great political virtues of humility, patience, and

moderation, without which every man in power becomes a ravenous beast

of prey (Peek 102).” In response to the ideas of Melancton Smith, the

strongest opposition from the Federalists came from Alexander Hamilton

at the New York ratification convention. Hamilton, along with Roger

Sherman and Robert Livingston, developed three strong arguments

against implementing term limits in government: the people have a

right to judge who they will and will not elect to public office,

rotation reduces the incentives for political accountability, and

rotation deprives society of experienced public servants (Foley 28).

In general, the goals of all founders, despite their political

affiliation, aimed at preserving a close connection between

representatives and their constituencies. While the Antifederalists

believed that imposing term limits would create enhanced participation

in government, a check on tyrannical leaders, and greater

representation of the people, the Federalists theorized that the same

goals could be accomplished by the president serving a short term and

having congressman follow his actions (Foley 34).

Following the adoption of term limits in Colorado, California,

and Oklahoma in 1990, Washington State became the site of intensely

fought campaigning during 1991. A group calling itself LIMIT

(Legislative Initiative Mandating Incumbent Terms) drafted an

initiative called I-553 in the winter of 1990-1991. At the time I-553

was considered the most prohibitive term-limitation proposal of the

1990’s because it limited legislatures to ten consecutive years in the

state legislature, with senators having two four-year terms and

representatives having three two-year terms. Senators and

representatives of the United States Congress would also be limited to

twelve consecutive years, two six-year terms and three two-year terms,

respectively. Most alarming to congressmen with greater tenure in

office, the initiative would take effect immediately and would be

retroactive, if passed (Cannon A4). Another initiative, I-522,

proposed eight year limits on state legislators and twelve years for

congressmen, and would have also placed restrictions on campaign

contribution, to which state party organization chairs quickly

announced their opposition. Due to the extreme animosity displayed

toward I-522, its backers withdrew their support and joined forces

with LIMIT. Following the I-553 proposal, LIMIT hastened to collect

well over two-hundred thousand signatures of support and the campaign

for passage began. Despite overwhelming endorsement by the general

public, the I-553 failed to pass on November 6, 1991 by a fifty-four

to forty-six percent margin. This sudden turnaround was credited to

then Speaker of the House Tom Foley, who would have been affected by

the initiative and thus, addressed the issue with conviction and

passion just days before the scheduled vote (Cannon A5).

On the ballot before California citizens in 1990 there were

two distinct term-limitation proposals- Proposition 131 and

Proposition 140. Under Proposition 131, drafted by Democrat John Van

de Kamp, office holders identified in the state constitution would be

restricted to two consecutive four-year terms, and elected officials

who had served their full term could sit out one term and be eligible

for the next (Benjamin 120). Proposition 140, authored by

conservative Republican Pete Schabarum, was targeted at “career

politicians” and contained far stricter term limit features than

Proposition 131. State assembly members were limited to three

two-year terms, and given a lifetime ban once their service was

completed (Benjamin 121). Advocates of Proposition 140 spent much of

their campaign attacking “career politicians” and their corruptive

nature. On Election Day, Proposition 140 was narrowly passed over

Proposition 131 because it offered term limits at no cost, while

Proposition 131 allowed taxpayer funding to directly funnel into

politicians’ campaigns (Benjamin 122). Recently, a federal appeals

court struck down Proposition 140 allowing the issue to ascend to the

United States Supreme Court. A panel of three judges voted two to one

in opposition to the term limits legislation on October 7, 1997,

declaring that the law’s language did not properly convey the message

that it carried a lifetime ban for lawmakers seeking the same office

(Frost 1).

Using his considerable resources, Lloyd Noble II, a member of

a wealthy Oklahoma family known for its civic contributions,

commissioned a survey of Oklahoma voter attitude toward the concept of

term limitation. Upon discovering the staggering results in favor of

the idea, he began devising a campaign strategy in an attempt to

implement twelve-year term limits on state legislators (Benjamin

140). State Question 632, as the proposal was called, prompted little

campaigning by its proponents and even less opposition by its

opponents (Benjamin 141). The only group to emerge in protest of

State Question 632 was PROVE (The Committee to Protect the Rights of

Oklahoma Voters), but their effort was for naught. As a result of

widespread support, well planned campaigning, and nearly non-existent

opposition, Oklahoma became the first state to impose term limits on

its state legislature on September 18, 1990 (Benjamin 142).

In order for a successful grass-roots movement on term limits

to materialize, both funding and organization is needed, and these

goals require the backing of trained professionals and activists. The

term limitation drive consists of a national and several local

headquarters; leaders of the latter run daily operations and plot

strategy in their respective states while they are assisted with

logistical support and general guidance by the former. In recent

years, five key national groups have emerged in the term limitation

effort: Americans to Limit Congressional Terms (ALCT), Citizens for

Constitutional Reform (CCR), and Americans Back In Charge (ABIC) have

supported mandatory rotation, while Let The People Decide (LTPD) and

American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)

have opposed it (Egan A1).

ALCT was established in the summer of 1989 by Republican

political consultants Eddie Mahe and LeDonna Lee, and quickly

incorporated Democrats in the organization to make it bipartisan. The

first national group created for the exclusive purpose of advocating

term limits for members in Congress, ALCT is based in Washington, D.C.

in order to take advantage of the national media attention and

constituency it has to offer. Despite limited association with grass-

roots politics, ALCT has served as a broad advisor and spokesman for

the national term limit movement. Unfortunately, ALCT began to

encounter organizational problems in 1991 when its president, Cleta

Mitchell, resigned in order to join Americans Back in Charge. Since

then ALCT has limited itself to direct mail fund raising and

overseeing state organizations.

CCR began in November of 1990 as an activity of Citizens for a

Sound Economy, a nonpartisan group promoting free-market alternatives

to government programs. CCR severed its ties with Citizens for a

Sound Economy in February of 1991 and created two different department

within itself- a lobbying group, and a tax-exempt, non-profit

organization. Until its replacement by U.S. Term Limits in 1992, CCR

boasted a grass-roots membership of over two-hundred thousand and

called for ending incumbent advantages in elections. CCR did so by

providing local groups with draft language for initiatives, valid

signature gathering for such initiatives, monitoring local and state

groups, and providing financial and fund-raising support (Egan B9).

ABIC developed from a state campaign committee that attempted

to gather support for a state initiative limiting the terms of state

legislators in the winter of 1989. The campaign committee,

Coloradoans Back in Charge (CBIC), spent over three-hundred thousand

dollars on radio advertising and signature gathering, and had

widespread success (Benjamin 65). ABIC is active in three major areas

of legal research, ballot access, and campaign strategy and tactics.

The organization provides information on legal procedures concerning

legislation on term limits to all local groups who are interested in

beginning initiatives, and also gives advice on signature collecting

to the same groups. ABIC’s main area of expertise lies with campaign

advice and how to run successful campaign fund raising, use the

media, and organize a volunteer network in order to gain public office

(Benjamin 66).

LTPD was first instituted as a lobbying organization opposed

to mandatory rotation during the spring of 1991 and remains the most

renown group of its kind despite any successes and limited resources.

They receive much of their financing from labor groups and manage to

employ an executive director and two panels of political scientists.

LTPD is most actively involved in monitoring and coordinating term

limit opposition around the country, providing research to those

groups, recommending speakers to advocate anti-term limit cases, and

providing legal guidance through the powerful Washington, D.C.-based

law firm of Arnold and Porter (Benjamin 70).

Organized labor unions such as the AFL-CIO often agree with

groups who combat term limits, yet they are quite reluctant to

mobilize a strong opposition. The AFSCME is the most active union,

and, like other term limit groups, collects valuable information about

term limit campaigns within the states and relays it to interested

groups. Since the AFSCME’s time and resources are limited, they

restrict themselves to offering advice and occasional funding to state

groups who support their cause (Benjamin 71).

No other group of Americans will be impacted by the issue of

term limitation more than the representatives and senators themselves.

It is ultimately the congressmen who decide whether or not the

Constitution will be amended to include rotation-in-office; therefore,

their opinions on the topic are of the utmost importance.

Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee, of Texas’s 18th district,

rose in adamant opposition to H.J. Resolution 2, which was a proposed

amendment to the constitution of the United States limiting the terms

of members of congress (Jackson-Lee 1). On February 12, 1997, Lee

argued that “the issue of term limits is one that threatens the power

of the American people to exercise a basic right granted by the

founding fathers of our great country- the right to vote for the

representative of their choice (Jackson-Lee 2). This resolution

shatters the core principle of freedom and seeks to spoil a right that

many sacrificed, fought and died for- the right to vote for whom they

choose (Jackson-Lee 2).” In her speech, she later cited Article I,

Section 2 of the constitution which provides the basic requirements of

anyone attempting to become a member of the House of Representatives.

Lee then questions the constitutionality of the amendment by adding,

“This language says nothing about the ability of current members of

congress choosing who may not represent the people of a particular

district by virtue of a member’s previous service (Jackson-Lee 3).”

Just as many other members of the United States government feel, Lee

thought the founders draft of the constitution has withstood the test

of time on a variety of issues; if they “wanted to include a provision

that limited the number of years that an individual could serve as a

representative of a group of constituents, the most certainly would

have done so. However, they did not [and] we are wise to follow their

wisdom (Jackson-Lee 4).”

Representative Bill Archer (7th District, Texas) also shared

Rep. Jackson-Lee’s thoughts on term limits, and he also voted against

the proposals considered by the House on February 12, 1997. He

discloses that 61% of the current House membership, and 44% of the

Senate were, was elected within the last six years; as a result, “the

last few elections certainly demonstrate that our country is

experiencing term limits naturally.” Archer also feels that since the

percentage of House members serving three years or less is higher in

the 105th Congress than in and other Congress elected since 1952,

“clearly, the voters have demonstrated their willingness to replace

members they believe are not adequately representing them (Archer 1).”

Conversely, Representative Kevin Brady (8th District, Texas)

believes that term limits are a good way to attain the goal of keeping

government “as near to the people as possible”, and showed this by

voting for H.J. Resolution 2 in order to limit House members to six

terms-twelve years- and Senate members to two terms-twelve years. From

Brady’s experience in the Texas legislature and in Congress, he feels

that “limiting members of the U.S. House equally to six terms provides

members ample time to represent their constituents effectively, while

preserving the original intent of a citizen-driven Congress.” By

rotation legislation, he hopes “to ensure…new ideas and fresh

citizens perspectives (Brady 1).” Another advocate of term limits,

Rep. Ron Paul (14th District, Texas) actually introduced the first

term limitation bill of the modern era and has voted in favor of each

bill introduced to limit Congressional terms to twelve years.

However, term limits only somewhat address the issue of “career

politicians.” To limit the lawmaking power of such individuals, Paul

aims to eliminate “perks like the pension system” in addition to

mandatory rotation-in-office (Paul 1).

In order to keep government “…as near to the people as

possible…”, imposing term limits on legislators is clearly an

invalid method to accomplish this goal. The founders purposely

excluded rotation-in-office from the Constitution because they felt no

need to include such a statement when voters already levy term limits

on congressmen through elections (Jackson-Lee 8). Congressional

privilege and power is derived from seniority. If states restrict

congressional tenure they ultimately place themselves in a weaker

political position of power relative to states who choose not to.

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