Published in The Daily Beacon,Monday, February 26, 2007
Not long ago, I was entering the drive through window of a fast food place, when I saw a bumper sticker which summarized my political philosophy quite well: "Politicians are like diapers. Both need to be changed regularly!" In our own local government, the issue of term limits has been hotly debated in recent months, but the underlying principles are as old as our nation itself. Over and over, human nature has proven to me that every elected official, from the President down to the local school board, should be subject to term limits, period.
Thomas Jefferson observed that "if some termination to the services of the chief Magistrate be not fixed by the Constitution, or supplied by practice, his office, nominally four years, will in fact become for life," Unlike the dictators, kings and emperors of other nations, our officials are selected to serve the people, not vise-versa. While most people may enter public service with noble motives, the opiate of political influence often proves difficult to handle. Like no other institution, politics has repeatedly proven Orwell’s maxim that "power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely."
The need for term limits has been recognized throughout our nation’s history, starting with President George Washington. Although Washington’s decision to serve no more than two terms was primarily due to health concerns, it set a model followed by all subsequent presidents until Franklin Roosevelt broke the tradition by being elected four times. This prompted the newly elected Republican Congress to amend the Constitution to prevent the presidency from evolving into a dictatorship. The result of their efforts was the Twenty-second Amendment.
Although term limits is generally thought of as a conservative issue, that has not always been the case. As President Ronald Reagan’s second term was coming to an end, some Republican lawmakers began to push for a repeal of the 22nd amendment so that he could seek a third term. It was later, during the administration of George H.W. Bush that the GOP again picked up the term limits gauntlet. The elder Bush was a strong advocate for expanding term limits to Congress. In the Republican Revolution of 1994, the issue was a key part of the “Contract with America.” Not surprising, however, the issue eventually faded after the Republicans were the party in power.
This was unfortunate. The fact is that term limits address the concerns of both conservatives who are concerned about the government getting too big, as well as liberals who want a more level playing field. This is why people of both parties would be well served to study the issue more carefully. Such an effort would help to clear the path for new faces and fresh ideas to emerge as never before.
Would term limits be an instant "cure-all?" No, but over a period of time, I do believe we would begin to see a more honest, efficient and accountable government. Gradually, beltway elitists would be replaced by private citizens who knew that they would have to return to the real world and live under the laws they had made.
You might say, "But we already have term limits. They’re called elections!" True enough, but this argument is both overly simplistic and self-defeating. Not only are elections often stacked in favor of the incumbent candidate, they are often decided by uninformed voters who think of elected officials in celebrity terms. How many times are votes cast based on which candidate is taller, better looking or simply has more name recognition?
Although the concept of a “virtuous electorate” is certainly a noble ideal, it is simply not a reality. The potential for these sorts of abuses requires us to put up proper restraints. Term limits are one of these restraints which would bring some much needed “fresh air” to the corridors of power.