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.


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