The issue of term limits is an important and frequently controversial one in the United States. We live in a representative democracy, in which checks and balances are put on those in power. This was designed very deliberately; at least in theory, it’s meant to protect us from becoming a dictatorship.
Term limits are one of these checks and balances, and have been in play in various forms more or less since our country was founded a couple centuries ago. The first use of term limits actually took place during the Continental Congress in the 1700’s. The Articles of Confederation, written in the 1780’s, declared that no delegate could serve on the Continental Congress for more than six years.
The limits on Congressional and political power today are not exactly what they were in the early years of our nation. From time to time, we have changed exactly how long politicians can stay in office and what powers they hold. Unfortunately, many Americans have an incomplete knowledge of term limits and what they mean for our government.
Here’s more information on the history of term limits, as well as a look at why they’re more important than ever for our government today.
The President and State Offices
The term limit for American presidents has been around for quite a long time, but for much of that time it has been a convention rather than a law. The two-term limits we associate with presidents began with George Washington. He decided to leave office after two terms, although he probably could have been there much longer due to his overwhelmingly positive public opinion.
After President Washington, two terms became the accepted convention, and every other president followed his lead until Franklin D. Roosevelt was reelected for four terms (from 1933 to 1945). After FDR, Americans passed the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, which officially limited the presidency to two terms.
For Congressmen, there were, and still are, fewer limits on how long elected officials can stay in office. Many of those who ratified the Constitution saw this as a dangerous defect in our country’s government. However, America did not seriously discuss Congressional term limits again until the 1980’s and 1990’s, when the term limit movement gained popularity.
In the early 1990’s, 23 different states set term limits for state and federal officials, although the Supreme Court decided they could not legally limit the terms of Congressional Office. Thus, although 36 different states now have term limits for their local offices, federal Congressmen can theoretically remain in office for life.
Even if their public approval rating is relatively low, incumbent Congressmen are almost always reelected. Supreme Court Justices are even more secure in their office; they are never up for reelection, and can hold their position indefinitely, so long as they remain in good standing.
The Pros and Cons of Term Limits
As with almost any important issue, political term limits are divisive. Those on both sides of the issue have good points to support their stance. For example: term limits can, in some instances, limit progress. Given how slow-moving legislature can be already, it can be even more difficult to pass laws and enact change if you’re only in office for a few years.
Term limits would also make it easier for incumbents to be put out of office and for new politicians to hold a lot of power. As a result, our public offices could be filled with inexperienced politicians who may desire change, but lack the skills and connections needed to be truly influential.
On the other hand, not having term limits means people can hold a Congressional seat for virtually their entire lives. Although re-elections are held every few years, once in office, a politician is rarely voted out. Remaining in office for decades not only gives a politician in incredible amount of power, but it can also prevent positive change.
For example: an area may demographically change a great deal over a few years, but if an incumbent from years past manages to stay in office, the people’s views will not truly be represented. Even if people try to vote in “new blood” to shake things up, it is rarely successful, since incumbents hold a lot of power and have an established base of support. The incredible amount of power a politician can have without term limits seems to go against the very system of checks and balances on which our country was founded.
More Relevant than Ever
Maintaining or increasing term limits is more relevant now than ever before. In the history of our country, the career politician is a relatively new thing. In previous centuries, Congressmen would typically give up their seats voluntarily after a term or two. At first, this was due to the general distaste people associated with public office, but beginning the mid-1800’s, there were also typically bribes and prizes associated with relinquishing your seat. The ethics of such bribery is questionable, but you have to admit it did its job.
Now, though, we commonly have officials stay in office for decades, and overall progress at a national level in our country is very slow. For example: President Obama, for all his efforts, hasn’t been able to get much legislation past a sluggish and largely hostile Congress. This partially contributed to the government shutdown in October of last year, as well as his recent enthusiasm for issuing executive orders.
Furthermore, several offices around the country are holding more power than they did previously. Michael Bloomberg, the former Mayor of New York City, actually served 3 terms in office after voting to extend the term limit while he was in office. Maine also recently increased the number of term limits its legislators could serve from four to six.
While minor extensions to the term limit such as these may not seem like much of a problem, they do give elected officials more power, which can be dangerous. Just look at Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who’s been president for nearly 15 years, and who recently decided to invade Ukraine. Putin is an all too real example of what can happen when a career politician is both unchecked and unbalanced.
Image Credit: Flickr (via Creative Commons)
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