As we did in Part I of this Three Part Series, let us look back at history’s lessons so that we can find a better way forward.
In the time leading up to, and during the constitutional convention, men like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison worked to correct the broken system created by the Articles of Confederation.
In an overly zealous effort to avoid the same tyranny previously employed by the British Empire, the Articles left the continental congress severely handicapped in a number of ways. For instance, the federal government had no power to tax the states, and it was devoid of a chief executive. Furthermore, the congress could not compel its own members to show up for sessions. As a result of these miscalculations, the nation was bankrupt. The army was unpaid and ill supplied. The treaty of Paris sat for months before being ratified in 1787.
Perhaps this dysfunction sounds familiar. The answer in 1787, as is the answer now, is Federalism- a government system based on a strong, efficient, representative federal government, run by honest men and women, with the great majority of power left unto the states and individual Americans.
The architects of the Constitution tried hard to ensure the lasting viability of the republican system, but they incorrectly predicted the honesty and virtuousness of people seeking public office.
To be fair, they could not have predicted, and surely did not expect, for lawmakers to spend 30 or 40 years holding office, spending hours daily fundraising, and doing whatever necessary to get reelected.
Legislative term limits were discussed, and were even a part of the Articles of Confederation, but rotational governance was common practice at the time. The business of lawmaking was far from desirable to the public, and it was not lucrative.
It was also believed that fresh ideas were necessary for proper government function, and that spending too long a time in power led to corruption. George Washington even declined running for a third term as the nation’s first president.
Noted Antifederalists Richard Henry Lee and George Mason both rallied for term limits. Lee prophetically called the absence of term limits in the Constitution “dangerously oligarchic,” and Mason noted that “nothing is so essential to the preservation of a republican government as periodic rotation.”
Despite their fears, the Constitution is silent on term limits other than those set forth for the president in 1947.
Flash forward to 2014 when Thad Cochran, a Republican senator from Mississippi, encouraged Democratic voters to help him defeat his Tea Party primary challenger, while at the same time promising to represent conservative values to his Republican base.
While speaking out of both sides of his mouth, Cochran won his primary. He still sits in the senate today, where he represents neither liberals nor conservatives.
Even with record disapproval ratings, federal lawmakers have a 90% reelection rate.¹ That is to say that even in the face of major public disapproval, the same politicians continue to remain in office.
There have been serious efforts to enact term limits on the legislative branch as recently as the 1990’s, but the Supreme Court halted these efforts in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, wherein they ruled that states did not have the right to limit their own federal representatives.
If term limits are to happen and career politicians are to be removed, change most likely needs to come from congress itself, and therefore, by the voters.
Legislators, unafraid of being voted out, must stand up for liberty and honesty as they were charged to do in the beginning. The federal government needs an injection of wisdom, of desire to serve, of selflessness, and most importantly, of honesty.
“Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”