Thursday, June 25, 2009

Term limits again?!

There's probably not a single political issue out there that unites more disparate factions than the term limit issue. Would-be government reformers seem to align on this issue almost to the man.

A few days ago I was reading a discussion involving term limits at the Tenth Amendment Center. Everyone was pretty much in agreement that we need to install term limits in the federal constitution, but one commenter in particular made the statement that term limits is a "no-brainer." Which is to say that if you don't support the popular idea of term limiting the federal Congress, then you're something like the village idiot.

Well, I must be the village idiot. And village idiot that I am, I dared to challenge this individual on his assumption. Anyway, the moral of that particular story is that if you lack a good workable knowledge of the constitution and its explication in the Federalist Papers, you best not tangle with someone that possesses it. Oh, I was nice about it; I didn't engage in any personal attacks (what would have been the point?). But when I suggested that this individual might want to read the Federalist Papers to gain a better understanding of the federal constitution, and why the framers included certain provisions therein while leaving others out, I was informed that I was the one that didn't understand the constitution, and that the Federalist Papers offered no instruction on the subject because that was the government they (the framers) were trying to improve when they wrote the Constitution. Well, at this suggestion I simply advised that my interlocutor google the terms "Federalist Papers," and "Articles of Confederation," because it seemed he might be confusing the two. These young whipper-snappers!, I don't quite know what to think about 'em sometimes. ;-) I tend to think, though, that the modern educational apparatus in America, with all of its concern about "self-esteem," absolute equality and so forth and so on, has a tendency to bring out the very worst in individuals and they lack a certain humility and deference that is proper for the relatively uneducated and inexperienced to possess. But that's just a theory and it's beside the point...

A few days later the question arose again under a different article at the Tenth Amendment Center. Same basic results -- people jumping on board advocating for a term limit amendment added to the federal Constitution. And again I felt I needed to challenge this position. But let me just say, without going into a lot of detail, that (1) the founders were well aware of so-called "career politicians," the avarice, inrigue, ambitions and so forth that they possess. Yet they still didn't include term limits (modern definition) in the federal constitution. And (2) the constitution the founders created is a complete working system; a system that, like any other system, when you begin mucking around with it making changes and alterations which, on the surface, appear to be "limited" you later tend to find that they have unintended, unforseen negative consequences which affect the whole structure, and therefore the whole effectiveness as to its original intent, of the government as the founders originally designed it. But our founders didn't leave us without explanation on this point of term limiting the federal Congress. We may read something about it in Federalist no. 64, among other places.

But my main point about federal term limits is this -- I personally couldn't ever support a constitutional amendment that alters the original fundamental structure of the federal government, or that undermines its design and its legitimate purpose. We've done that enough times already with everything from "birthright citizenship" for the children of illegal aliens, to the imposition of a federal income tax, to the "democratic" election of our Senators in the 17th amendment, to limiting the terms of presidents, etc. And this is the very reason I've never supported the FMA. I'm a strong advocate of traditional marriage, but I don't want some federal beaurocracy engaging in fraud, waste, and abuse, issuing marriage licenses and taking ultimate control of the marriage issue. No; my consistent position has been that I can never support a given amendment proposal unless it can be shown to be in keeping with the original intent and design of the government. And when you get down to where the rubber meets the road, this popular clamoring for federal term limits is simply an attempt to establish more mob rule. We've got enough of that already, in my humble opinion. Besides, what makes people think that a state like Massachusetts will not replace a Ted Kennedy with a clone of Ted Kennedy as soon as he's out, I will personally never know. If the people can't control themselves without term limits, how in God's name are they going to control themselves with them? And as our founding fathers were quick to point out to us, we can't always know that people are on the right side of an issue for noble reasons, and vice versa. In other words, don't think for a minute that everyone is on board with term limits because they want to "limit" the size and influence of the federal government. Let me tell you something -- probably the vast majority of people vying for federal term limits have an opposite goal in mind. But, you know, we moderns tend to think that democracy is the ultimate in good government.


DR said...

Excellent post I completely agree. One of my biggest complaints about those supporting term limits is that they believe it is a magic fix. If they were too lazy to get involved and remove politicians under the current system why should we believe they would make sure to get involved and elect a competent politician if there were term limits.

Call Me Mom said...

Very nicely put, Mr. Morris. The "cure" for what ails us currently is not term limits but personal responsibility.

Anonymous said...

Well, if you're talking about the United States government, there isn't any cure at all.

I'm wary of taking the view that the Constitution is perfect, there are a lot of assumptions about how things would work which were proved wrong at almost the first possible instance. From the 'sunset clause' protecting the slave trade to the non-partisan structure of the presidential election to the First Amendment, the spirit of blind optimism does peek through in places.

Real term limits would have a significant 'cooling effect' on the entire power structure under which members of Congress expand the power of government to secure favor with their voters. Committees, party discipline, pork-barreling, the entire reward-risk structure of incumbency and campaigns, there are a lot of very sound arguments in favor of term limits.

The only remotely serious argument against them is the idea that lobbyists would gain disproportionate power over inexperienced legislators. And any real investigation of what actually happens strongly suggests that this argument is based on completely false premises. For whatever reasons, legislators generally have the highest resistance to improper influence near the beginning or planned end of a career.

All that said, if it was ever going to happen, it would have happened already. Even if every person dissatisfied with Congress became a single issue voter for term limits, it wouldn't happen. That doesn't make term limits a bad idea. It does put it into the category of "things that can only be fixed using magic".

Terry Morris said...


Did I say the constitution is perfect? I don't recall saying that. (By the way, someone over at the Tenth Amendment Center thread said that I need to realize that the founders were human and therefore subject to make mistakes just like the rest of us. I'm sure glad he mentioned that because otherwise I'd still be thinking of them as some kind of demigods.)

No; I didn't say it is perfect. I didn't even imply that I think it is perfect. What I said is that it is a complete system; that we should observe extreme caution when we go about reacting to a given situation that is not only due to no flaw inherent to the constitution itself, but that would advance the material alteration of our government. Particularly for folks who claim to wish to restore the government to some semblance of the original intent of the framers.

But I entirely disagree with you about the non-existence of any plausible arguments against term limits at the federal level. There is, to the contrary, a powerful argument against such an innovation, and it goes right to the heart of the purpose of having a centralized national government to begin with - our relationship to and with foreign nations and leagues of foreign nations. As Jefferson rightly noted "the constitution makes us several as to ourselves, one as to all others."

I personally wouldn't make the argument you cite above in opposition to term limits, but if you'll admit of the 'remote plausibility' of such an argument, surely you can see that a national government in a constant state of flux and turmoil due to the turnover rate and inexperience regularly introduced into the national legislature by the imposition of term limits, presents a real danger to national security.

Anonymous said...

Hmm...I would say that the difficulty you perceive is based on two fallacious assumptions, but thinking it over carefully I'm inclined to discount the notion that one of them is an assumption and feel more cautious about the idea that the other is totally false.

Still, I will first assert that maintaining relationships with foreign states is primarily the role of the President, who is already term limited and effectively has been throughout nearly the entire history of the United States. Whether or not this is good or bad is open to debate, but I simply will not be drawn into an argument over whether it is so.

I realize that Congress has a significant role in ratifying should have no role in writing or negotiating them.

As to the idea that term limits will make the Congress more fractious and prone to wild swings of ideology...there are a couple of fundamental problems with that. First, it is common for politicians to become more 'extreme'--in the sense of catering to small fringe groups rather than the general feeling of the electorate--the longer they hold office (as I hinted above). It may be that the reasons you believe this happens could be exacerbated by term limits, though not knowing why you think it happens, I can't really say.

The second issue is a more fundamental population dynamic sometimes called "the pendulum". It is the tendency of a movement in a given ideological direction to have too much momentum to stop where most people would like it, so that policies are usually drafted from one end or the other of an ideological spectrum rather than the center. Term limits would strongly tend to impose a braking force on this dynamic because it wouldn't take a huge amount of ideological pressure to dislodge officeholders.

Basically, with more orderly and structured turn-over in Congress, the legislators would spend a larger portion of their career in the ideological center of their electorates, and that ideological center would not be required to shift dramatically just to replace anyone. This would make the overall ideological dynamics of Congress far more stable, not less so.

Now, as I said before, term limits cannot fix the fundamental problems of the United States. America needs radical changes which have to go far beyond what will enjoy any widespread popular support. If, by some miracle, America can take another year of the current trends without falling apart at the seams, and then sweeps ultra-neo-conservatives into office in overwhelming numbers, and somehow they were able to put together a plan, it would be a shame if the top spot were to impose term limits.

America would need two or three decades of sustained effort to restore limited Constitutional government even with a new generation like the Founding Fathers. Term limits would dramatically slow that process, and probably stop it pretty much in the current political center (which is still pretty far to the left of, say, Reagan). Note I'm talking about the real center of the electorate, not the non-existent 'center' of the elites (there is no such thing as a centrist elite).

The thing about magic bullets (and by now military science has a pretty good body of experience with them) is that they can make a real difference, but they can still only do so much. Even if you could deploy a telepathic ninja robot which would teleport about the battlespace killing only bad guys, the good guys would still need to do something for themselves.

Well, if you didn't you'd end up with the survival instincts of potatoes...anyway the point is that even if something is a real magic bullet, it only does what it does. I can see many excellent arguments in favor of term limits as a way to encourage stability and prudence in the government, but those happen to not be of much use given the current state of affairs.

Terry Morris said...

Well, in the original debate at the Tenth Amendment Center I pointed out that there are good arguments on both sides of the question. It isn't just a cut-and-dried "no-brainer," as a commenter there dogmatically asserted. But I'm with you on one particular point -- one of the best arguments against term limiting the federal Congress is that it will serve no greater purpose, so really, what is the point? And also, if we actually did manage to swing the pendulum in the other direction, as you say, it would be a shame and a disgrace if term limits were imposed because rather than slow the process (which is a naturally slow process anyway), term limits would most likely ultimately destroy it.

Anonymous said...

I would tend to say that, from a Constitutional perspective, term limits are close to being a "no brainer" as some might say.

The justifications behind the variety of term lengths seems to strongly imply that the founders assumed that people would be serving in offices for a variable but small number of terms in any office. The easy acceptance and long observance (without color of explicit law) of that being two terms for the presidency also strongly suggests that the founding generation did not find the idea novel or even remarkable.

In fact, it looks very much like term limits are one of those things that didn't make it into the Constitution for the same reasons that disqualifying ritual sado-pederastic cannibals from holding office didn't make it in. Nobody thought it was an issue at the time.

Now, I'm not going to promote an amendment disqualifying ritual sado-pederastic cannibals from high office. Sometimes a 'no brainer' should be left a no brainer. In other words, if you're seeing a lot of certain kinds of things, you might have problems that amendments aren't going to fix.

But term limits...seems more like a solution to a problem that even a completely healthy republic is going to have. It is only one possible solution to the problem of long incumbency. There are others, many potentially far better. It was a problem that was not sufficiently serious at the beginning to generate much alarm, and by the time anyone even thought to put the traditional Presidential term limit into the Constitution, it was clearly impossible that the same could be done for Congress.

I would argue that term limits are insufficient by themselves, that the solution is to make office so uncomfortable and dangerous that only men of the greatest integrity and courage (moral and physical) will even be tempted to seek it. I'm not exactly eager to be a helot, but if one must have a government, a Congress of Spartans seems preferable to anything else that human origin might provide.

Rather than a term limit, I'd like to see a special honor deserved by anyone who managed to survive, say, twelve years in office.

But, realistically, term limits are a lot more likely.