Why Not Term Limits?

George M. Haddad
January 12, 2004

The debate is back again in many states. As an example, the state of Michigan will soon be celebrating its 10th year anniversary after having embraced the concept of a limitation of terms on its legislators. The subject of term limits is akin to the surveillance of a crocodile in a roiled river. It keeps rearing its ugly head. It has been presented again as a dastardly mistake. This naturally must be met head-on each time it enters the arena. For those who believe and have a need for entrenched father figures at either the state or the national levels it is understandable as to why this concept would keep them in stress mode.

Term limits in many states became a reality because the normal elective process had been abused. The miracle in its enactment came about because either it was in that particular state's constitution or enough voters had awakened from an apathetic conditioning and caused the legislators to sit up and take notice.

The approximate 16 States today with term limits on their books are under continual harassment for repeal. After all, what self respecting legislator would want to have his term of office cut short just when he had begun to man the tiller and steer the ship in his desired direction.

In the 90s and early 2000s there have been 5 States which have repealed term limits. One of the earliest was Idaho. Although its governor vetoed the bill, the Legislature overrode the veto on a vote of 26-8 in the Senate and 50-20 in the House.

Idaho's term limits were in its statutes, so the Legislature was able to repeal them without a popular vote. In most States, term limits are part of the constitution and any change requires a popular vote.

If we ratchet the problem another notch we find that the same cams and cogs are yammering in the machinery at the national level. Most elected office holders, feeling of course, that their vast and worldly experience should count for something.

The anti-term limits people continue the cry for the importance of experienced politicians. The use of the phrase "lame ducks" tends to be prevalent in the writings of those who oppose term limits. There is a fear that nothing will get done if a legislator knows that he or she will be soon out of office.

On the other hand it also means that a legislator will no longer be easy prey for the special interest groups and/or the lobbyists since pouring money into that legislator's coffers will most likely not bring back the desired results.

There is a great deal to be said for able, strong, intelligent inexperienced politicians. As with an effective corporate CEO, these are the people who would have the ability to surround themselves with staff who are experts in each element of political legislation. By their track record we have seen what career politicians have wrought and yet these facts of history tend to be discounted by those who would prefer to be led by the entrenched. We know from unadulterated experience that the cardinal principals of most politicians fall into these priorities: spending our money, career protection, political fund raising and finally the constituents. It has oft been noted that the less meetings by the legislators the more protected is the citizenry.

As was once written by an unknown author, "prior to W.W.II we viewed elective office as a sacrifice. For today's politicians, it's a career opportunity. We rid America of a monarchy and we've established an elected aristocracy. Once they were farmers, merchants and professionals who resumed their careers after a brief term of service and never lost touch with their constituents." At present they are reminiscent of the feudal barons of yesteryear. Each with his own little kingdom, his geographical domain and his ever filled pocketbook to purchase the power to stay secure and safe behind those formidable walls.

In the absence of term limits at the national level, we are governed by an elite so distant from their constituents as to almost constitute a separate species. Our elected rulers hold office for 20 or 30 years, becoming increasingly detached from their roots, while rewarding themselves with additional monetary compensations at every turn.

There is strong reason to believe that with non-careerists we would not have been mandated over the years by a run-away juggernaut as to how much water should be in our toilet bowls; how much we weigh and what diets we should be on; what size and type car to buy; where to live; and whether the puddles in our back yards are wetlands. This is mischief which can be wrought only by the entrenched.

We have recently been subjected to the passage of what is laughingly referred to as Campaign Finance Reform. A bunkered down and arrogant Congress, with no concern for the Constitution, has blatantly attacked our basic rights to free speech; another incremental attack on our fundamental liberties as Americans.

American history has shown a direct correlation between entrenchment in office by politicians and their unwillingness to invest money in our military and in our defense. In the last half century there has been a direct parallel between an embedded congress and military unpreparedness. We saw this most blatantly in the 40 year rule of the liberals as money continued to flow out of the military budget and into the pork barrels of their particular states. There was a continued unwillingness to support the military even while at war and yet their pet projects never suffered.

As depicted in their writings, many of our founding fathers were fearful that citizens would stay in public office too long. It was James Madison in the Federalist Papers who cautioned, "A few of the members, as happens in all such assemblies, will possess superior talents, will by frequent re-elections become members of long standing; will be thoroughly masters of the public business, and perhaps not unwilling to avail themselves of those advantages."

Is it any wonder that in poll ratings the politicians rank lowest in honesty, integrity and trust but highest in power? Power begets power and allows entry into a social world which they no longer recognize. This is evidenced in the perverted climate of hallowed diversity and political correctness. Thus, as Thomas Sowell has so aptly written "Giving leaders enough power to create 'social justice' is giving them enough power to destroy all justice, all freedom and all human dignity."

In today's political system we have an incumbent stacked deck where outsiders have a low percentage chance of entering the ring successfully. It is conventional wisdom that incumbents are in a better position to prepare and amass massive mailing lists, develop political machines, make invaluable political contacts and continue with year 'round fund raising. In term limit states this has changed dramatically.

The continual bombardment to repealing term limits is ample evidence as to how it has jammed and disrupted the ongoing comfort level.

This is not an indictment of all people who work in government service since there are many who devote an altruistic existence on behalf of their constituents and their country. Good people can be found in every discipline, but there is something about the political arena which is a little different when it comes to determining the good from the bad -- the talented and the truly able from the opportunists. It is called the power of the purse. And it is compelling.

There are many reasons as to why term limits are essential as a built in benefit to the general public other than the fact that the American citizen will be in a far greater position for sound, effective and intelligent enactment of due process.

The following precepts are critical to the awareness of a need for term limits in political office:

  1. Being in public office too long breeds arrogance.
  2. Salaries and perks today are of such a nature as to inculcate a heavy desire to stay in office.
  3. The continual campaigning for election funds while in office has been a deterrent to effective representation to all but the special interest groups. Limited terms minimizes the time spent for devising ways of getting re-elected and furthering their own public careers
  4. By the nature of the position of public office, incumbents can effectively develop a political machine as well as a war chest which is too difficult for new aspirants to equal.
  5. A limited tenure encourages the office holder to remember that his or her justification for existence is to uphold the constitution, the rules of order and implement the necessary tools to defend the nation.
  6. A limited tenure discourages bribery as well as making the incumbent less vulnerable to bribes.
  7. A limited tenure incumbent will not be intimidated as much by the polls or tempted as much by the moneyed lobbyists.
  8. It would encourage real and active reform where needed since the coterie of lawyers and lobbyists would have less sway.
  9. It would be an automatic and continual blood transfusion into a legislature which too often cradles the ambivalence of one foot in quick sand and the other in a bear trap.
  10. Increasing their own wages and perks would cease to dominate their agenda since there would be enough resistance in the ranks from those on their way out.
  11. They would be in office only long enough not to have lost touch with reality and the outside world.
  12. The tenure is short enough that it doesn't give them the time necessary or the idyllic longevity to learn how to use your money to erect structures titled with their names.
  13. People new to the game will have more tendency to regulate the regulators.
  14. Term limits would most likely discourage our Congress from its expanding role as a massive extortion machine.
  15. Term limits would minimize the risk of paternalism which appears to be a common trait of the career politician.
  16. It is reasonable to believe that a whole political party would not have prostituted itself to save a scoundrel if about one third of them were leaving office due to term limits.
  17. A limited period of time does not give them a sufficient period of time to bloat their budgets and continually increase their staffs.
  18. With a limited period in the legislature there is strong reason to believe that in the cases of tough and necessary legislation principal will outweigh political risk.
  19. With term limits we will find that there will be more individuals with definitive goals and laudable convictions.
  20. Term limits tends to lessen the gap between political courage and legislative corruption.
  21. The citizen-legislator would be more in tune with the Constitution and would not regard it, as today, a document only to be tolerated.
  22. The citizen-legislator would not be as prone to or even consider pushing us into subservience to the United Nations.
  23. The citizen-legislator would not consider giving himself an automatic pay increase each year without benefit of vote.
  24. Term limits would bring to a screeching halt the expansion of what we see now as a professional ruling class.

The long term legislator invariably develops an acute attack of spendinitis which is followed by the need and the thirst for an antidote called chronic taxation. Since the advent of recorded history the tax collector has always been the dreaded nemesis of any nation as well as the point man for ensuring the power of the despots.

Today we are the greatest nation on this earth and yet even this nation, as time unfolds, has fallen prey to the plague of continued and increased taxation of its populace. A disease which is ever prevalent when a particular caste has been allowed the luxury of office longevity. The scourge of heavy taxation bedevils and belittles us and will continue to be inescapable until we unearth the embedded.

The need for study of a return to part time legislators is becoming more and more credulous and a possibility but well beyond the scope of this article.

Possibly the best eulogy for their abysmal track record was written by Canadian Publisher Margaret Murray when she wrote that, "governments are like underwear, they start smelling pretty bad if you don't change them once in a while."

George M. Haddad has a Bachelors Degree in Sociology and a Masters Degree in Social Administration with extensive work experience with the mentally ill. The former Executive Director - National Institute for Burn Medicine - affiliated with the University of Michigan. He is retired from the National Staff of the YMCA as a troubleshooter in financial management and administration and has worked as a management consultant to non-profit corporations. He has written frequently on medical, social and political issues and has many published articles to his credit. He currently writes from Franklin, Michigan and can be contacted at gmhaddad@comcast.net.

Copyright George M. Haddad

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13 jan 2004