What We Need To Know About Term Limits
By KrisAnne Hall, JD
“We need term limits,” that’s the cry we hear so often today. Before we act we must ask the question: Is that the right solution to our life-time politicians or is that simply the easy solution that will eventually backfire? It is a question we can answer without a crystal ball. Patrick Henry said,
“I have but one lamp by which my feat are guided and that this the lamp of experience. I know no way to judge the future but by the past.”
Many enjoy studying the Constitution, yet the more critical thing is to study the Constitutional WITH history and intent of the founders. Our founders had specific conversations about these things and incorporated safeguards in the Constitution that we have either ignored or unknowingly destroyed along the way. The term limits designed by our founders were of two classes, 1. Elections and 2. Automatic recall and they were in the Constitution. We do not need to establish new term limits; we need to restore the ones we had when the founders created this great nation. Our founders gave us the weapons we need to guard the Liberty given to us by our Creator and we have been derelict in our duties. John Adams said, “If we are to have a free Republican Government we must have an attachment to the Constitution and a Conscientious determination to support it.” George Washington said, “the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake”. Daniel Webster said, “God grants Liberty only to those who love it and are always ready to guard and protect it.” Thomas Jefferson, repeated this admonition, “the price of Liberty is eternal vigilance.”
We live in perilous times and we must be armed with the weapons that will bring victory. One of those weapons is TRUTH and truth is sheathed in HISTORY. Let us unsheathe TRUTH and cut through the confusion. The term limits we have that are still active are called elections. Each elected representative is only guaranteed one term. The fact that they serve more than one term is done by the choice of the people. If the American people actually paid attention to elections, took them seriously and educated themselves on the candidates, voting principles instead of party or personality, there would be no way a corrupt or poor functioning representative could serve more than one term.
Founding Mother and political advisor Mercy Otis Warren was very upset when she learned from the newly drafted Constitution, members of Congress would be allowed to serve for a 2 year term, rather than submit to annual elections. In her argument against biennial elections, we see how many founders felt about the power of elections as the most effective term limits available. Mercy writes in her Observations on the new Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions (1788):
“Man is not immediately corrupted, but power without limitation, or amenability, may endanger the brightest virtue — whereas frequent return to the bar of their Constituents [frequent elections] is the strongest check against the corruptions to which men are liable, either from the intrigues of others of more subtle genius, or the propensities of their own hearts…”
Mercy continued in her opposition of biennial elections for House members to say the not only is it necessary to liberty and freedom to have “annual elections” but also points out that anything but annual elections is absurd and has been proven over time to be a bad idea:
“…nor has any one ever defended Biennial, Triennial or Septennial Elections, either in the British House of Commons, or in the debates of Provincial assemblies, on general and free principles…the best political writers have supported the principles of annual elections with a precision, that cannot be confuted…”
Finally Mercy tells us that the only reason we would agree to biennial elections is because we have succumb to a deception whose only design is the undermine the walls of protection for freedom:
“to though they may be darkned, by the sophistical arguments that have been thrown out with design, to undermine all the barriers of freedom.”
What do we learn from Mercy and the founders who agreed with her? The strongest guard against politicians giving in to corruption is knowing they will be “frequently” forced to submit to the approval of their constituents. Elections are the most complete term limits.
Mercy pleaded that moving from yearly elections to biennial elections would have an opposite and detrimental effect on the character of politicians and the liberty of the people. Term limits would bring the conclusion with even more drastic results. When the people know their politician can only serve a specific time, history proves this “security” will cause the people to slip into an even greater apathy toward elections and provide politicians the motivation they need to quickly surrender to “the corruptions to which men are liable, either from the intrigues of others of more subtle genius, or the propensities of their own hearts” to ensure their “profits” are collected before they are forced out of office.
The second mechanism for term limits our founders gave were actually stripped away by the 17th Amendment in 1913, when this country fell for a “pernicious design to subvert liberty.” Not my words, but words of our founding fathers. The government was originally designed to have our US Senators appointed by the state legislatures. This was intended to protect each state’s power by having direct representation in Congress. By direct, our founders meant that each Senator that was appointed was subject to automatic recall by the Legislature if the Senator was not performing his duties appropriately. Since Senators were appointed by the state legislatures, they would carefully watch the Senators and we the people would carefully watch the State legislatures. Our founders knew that government governed best when it governed least and governed at home (and it is much easier to show up en masse to our state capitols than to D.C. – and the politicians know that). James Madison, Father of the Constitution and 4th President explains:
“An individual who is observed to be inconsistent with his plans, or perhaps to carry on his affairs without any plan at all, is marked at once by all prudent people, as a speedy victim to his own unsteadiness and folly.” Federalist 62.
Their intent was to keep Senators attentive to the people and to keep the people attentive to the Senators. The Letters from a Federal Farmer XI, the author (probably Richard Henry Lee) explains:
“…it is interested combinations and factions we are particularly to guard against in the federal government, and all the rational means that can be put into the hands of the people to prevent them, ought to be provided and furnished for them. Where there is a power to recall, trusty sentinels among the people, or in the state legislatures, will have a fair opportunity to become useful…Further the circumstance of such a power being lodged in the constituents, will tend to keep up their watchfulness, as well as the attention and dependence of the federal senators and representatives.”
The founders knew that immediate recall would have two results: it would force the people to be “eternally vigilant” in their watchfulness of the Senate and it would cause the Senate to be constantly checking with the people for proper direction and movement of the government. The Federal Farmer states what we know all too well;
“it is a disagreeable truth, that power perverts men’s views in greater degree, than public employments inform their understandings – they become hardened in certain maxims and more lost to fellow feelings.”
Have we not seen that very truth play out in our own Congress? They seem to be more concerned about re-elections, special interests, and self-exaltation than the good of the nation. He continues in his very accurate assessment:
“Men may always be too cautions to commit alarming and glaring iniquities: but they, as well as systems are liable to be corrupted by slow degrees…we are not only to guard against what men will do, but even against what they may do.”
America didn’t get into this mess overnight. Many have said that they “woke up” one morning and realized they no longer recognized the country that we are living in. That’s because it has been corrupted by slow degrees and its leaders have become unresponsive.
“Men in high public offices are in stations where they gradually lose sight of the people, and do not often think of attending to them, except when necessary to answer private purposes.”
Our Congressmen have become so comfortable in their stations that they no longer think of attending to the people except for election time. The founders’ intention with this principle of automatic recall is clearly stated :
“members of Congress must return home, and share in the burdens they may impose and, therefore, private motives will induce them to make mild laws, to support liberty, and ease the burdens of the people.”
In 1913 that all changed. Under the false argument that vacancies created by the automatic recall were a great inconvenience to the efficient function of government, the 17th Amendment was proposed, by a group called the Progressives of 1912- led by former president Teddy Roosevelt. This amendment removed the recall and the appointment process of the Senators by their State legislatures and put it to a popular vote of the people on a 6 year cycle. The proponents of this amendment championed this as “truly putting the choice of the Senators in the hands of the people.” Only through time can we see that the exact opposite has happened and the fears of the Federal Farmer and our Founders have come to fruition. The 17th Amendment did not give more power to the people, it took power away. Now our Senators seem completely unaware that their purpose is to represent and protect the interests of their State. Today, most our Senators act like they are just another representative for the people or worse a representatives of the federal government! Can we ask ourselves a simple logical question? Why do we have a bifurcated Congress if both Houses represent the exact same thing?
What could be a greater power than the people spotting corruption and immediately putting an end to it? We hear much talk about term limits today. Why is that? Because we understand exactly what the Federal Farmer stated; men are corrupted by slow degrees and when they sit in DC too long they no longer think of attending to the people. The irony is that we had the ultimate term limits to begin with.
I am not opposed to term limits, just to term limits as they are represented in our day. My objections are derived from the results that we have already seen. We have lost that eternal vigilant spirit of the people. Remember, the Federal Farmer stated that the principle behind automatic recall was to keep the people watching DC and DC listening to the people; when the 17th Amendment was ratified, that principle was defeated; the people stopped watching and DC stopped caring about the people. The people were able to fall asleep for 5 years and the Senators were able to not often think of attending to the people, except when necessary to answer private purposes, ie. elections. If experience is the oracle of truth as Alexander Hamilton notes, we should understand that implementing term limits that give people a limit of two terms or more, will allow the American people to sleep for a minimum of 11 years instead of just 5. Politicians will then know they will be out of a job after 12 years. They will have 11 years of unwatched political power to make whatever gains they can, regardless of their responsibility to the people or the Constitution. They will pocket money and form partnerships with lobbyists so they can leave with as much as possible and a guaranteed new political career at the end of 12 years. Never once will they consider their true duty.
Finally, term limits are not an example of Liberty, to the contrary they seem to be a kind of “throw the baby out with the bathwater” type of solution. What if a Representative or Senator is truly and exceptionally fulfilling their duty? Term limits say that the people are forbidden to keep that person in their position. They are ultimately removed from office, outside the will of the people, when they have committed no misconduct and have been true defenders of Constitution and Liberty.
If we truly want term limits, why wouldn’t we want the term limits that our founders intended; effective elections and recall. We have to stop bouncing around like blind mice trying to find our way.
Our founders were such prolific writers, their arguments (on both sides) were so well formulated and plainly discussed. They had such an intimate knowledge of their history that they could give direct warnings that are relevant to any time. Yet, we continue to ignore their warnings and barrel right into the destruction they believed we could avoid. The term limits we were given in this brilliant plan our founders labored over and developed using over 700 years of historical experience are exactly what we need today. Very simply stated we need to:
- Repeal the 17th Amendment and reinstate automatic recall through the state legislatures – and
- Become an educated and involved constituency that will refuse to re-elect every politician that is abusing or failing to fulfil their responsibilities, regardless of their party or personalities—or who their opponent may be.
Then we have all the TERM LIMITS we need! The liberty solutions is not always the easy solution. But it is always the only solution that will guarantee our children will be free.