Term Limits in U.S. Government
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.