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The logic behind term limits and a historical perspective

By John Silveira

Issue #35 • September/October, 1995

It was Tuesday and we were in deadline mode. Heat was seeping through the uninsulated walls of the new offices of Backwoods Home Magazine like little beasts from a horror movie that had come to suck the life out of me and leave my poor depleted body in a puddle on the floor. Dave Duffy's poker playing friend, O.E. MacDougal, had come up from southern California. This was the last day of his three-day visit; he was getting ready to go further north. He didn't say what his business was up there, but he'd told me it was serious and pointed to the four fishing rods in his car.

At the moment he stood beside the bookcase that stands in the middle of the office, reading several newspaper clippings Dave had taped there.

"Anything interesting up there?" I asked.

"I see Dave's interested in seeing a term limit amendment passed."

"Yeah, but with that vote in Congress a few months ago, I think it's become a dead issue. It was a tempest in a teapot, anyway."

He didn't say anything.

"What do you think about it?" I asked.

"I'd like to see term limits."

"Why?"

"A couple of reasons, not the least of which is that incumbents are too hard to get rid of and as a result government has become too distant from, and to unresponsive to, the people."

"But Mac, if term limits are so important, why weren't they written into the Constitution 200 years ago?"

"Thomas Jefferson actually wanted them — at least for the Presidency. He feared the accumulation of power in the hands of individuals who found a way to stay in office too long. But we didn't get any term limits until the adoption of the 22nd Amendment in 1951 though that only applied to the Presidency.

"You know, from their correspondence and the records of their debates, we know the intent of the guys who founded this country, like Jefferson, Madison, and the rest of them, was to give us an elective government where citizens would run for office and, if elected, serve a term — perhaps even a few — then go home and live under the laws they'd made. They figured as new citizens emerged to take office, they'd bring new ideas with them — or a fresh perspective on old ideas. It was a good concept. They never intended, or expected, that serving in an elective office would become a career.

"Term limits would help return things to the original intent of the founders. Congress would no longer be a career job; people would go there for short and well defined terms of service."

"But people should be allowed to vote for whomever they choose," I said.

"They can't now. There are already age and residency restrictions on whom we can elect to the Presidency, the Senate, and the House, and there's the added restriction of being a natural born citizen for the Presidency. These restrictions haven't impaired our lives in any way."

I thought a minute and decided to take a new tack. "We already have a method to get rid of people we don't want," I said.

He didn't say anything.

"The vote," I added.

"It doesn't work too well."

"Sure it does. If the electorate doesn't think the elected are doing a good job, on election day they can just vote 'em out."

"It's not usually that easy," he said.

"What do you mean?"

"Let's say we're Republicans living in a Republican district and 60% of us don't like what the Republican incumbent is doing. How do we get rid of him?"

"Vote him out in the primary," I said quickly.

"Who's going to run against him?"

"Anyone can."

Blocking

"Here's the problem. If only one other candidate runs against him, and the voters feel he's a better candidate, the incumbent loses. But let's say two other candidates run against him. A lot of people, when they vote, vote against the incumbent without regard to who the alternatives are. They pick at random and, if there's more than one alternative, the votes from those people are more or less equally split among them. So, unless there's a compelling reason for the Republicans to get behind just one of those two alternatives, votes are likely to be split about 30% each for the alternatives and 40% for the incumbent. Ironically, the more opponents running against the incumbent, the better it is for him because the 'anti' vote is likely to be spread even thinner, which means he can be even less popular and still stand a good chance of winning.

"Come the actual election, the dissatisfied Republicans are now faced with the option of voting for a Republican they don't want or a Democrat whose policies they probably don't like.

"Our mythic Republican could go on in office like this for years — and many incumbents have — with most of the Republicans and virtually none of the Democrats wanting him there.

"On the local level, many politicians achieve longevity by artificially creating this very situation. It's called 'blocking.' When confronted by the threat of a real opponent, the incumbent has two or more of his cronies also run against him, and they block the real opponent's name. The people who vote randomly against the incumbent will split their votes."

The experience myth

"But what about experience?" I asked.

"Experience?"

"One Congressmen made the point that with term limits, we'd always be turning experienced legislators out of office. He asked, 'Where are we going to find more experience — by picking names at random from the phone book?'"

"It's been done before."

"That's ridiculous. That would be like holding a lottery to fill government posts. It would be insane."

"I'm not advocating we do it, but there have been governments just like that and they worked just fine."

"You're kidding."

"The Greeks, the very people who invented democracy, had at one time used lotteries as an alternative to elections in some of their city states. It was called sortition."

"What did they do, pull names out of a hat or something?"

"Yes. And except for a few notable exceptions, like military leaders and financial officials who were elected, virtually all government offices were filled by lot."

"Why did they do that?"

"It eliminated political races, ensured a regular turnover of officeholders, and most important, it guaranteed universal participation in the political process — the same thing our Founding Fathers advocated."

"So you could open your mail one day and find out you were governor whether you liked it or not?"

"No, your name was in the lottery because you had volunteered to be in it. If you hadn't volunteered, your name wasn't in the hat, or barrel, or whatever it was they used."

"Then experience went out the window," I said

"We're back to experience. What experience was that congressman talking about? His? None of those guys are indispensable. Name just one great legislator — representative or senator — from this century. Someone you could point to and say, 'Isn't America lucky we had that guy with his experience in Congress at that time.'"

He waited. I couldn't think of anyone.

"The only thing longevity gets you in Congress is power, not experience. Committee chairmanships aren't based on skill, intelligence, or even familiarity with the subject. They're based on seniority — and you can read seniority as 'longevity.' The longer you're in Congress, the more power you accumulate. It's not a merit system. The result is that a district is more apt to keep its representative or senator, not because of his smarts or anything that would mean he's a better man, but because of the power he wields, which translates into pork he can funnel back into the district. And neither the House nor the Senate are likely to alter the seniority rules that determine power.

"Consider this, also. Congress is filled with almost nothing but lawyers. Five hundred lawyers can't bring the variety of experience we need to Congress. We need the people who make this country tick — doctors, economists, farmers, shop owners, etc. To get the variety we need, we have to make public office less attractive as a career and more attractive as a service. Term limits would help do that.

Options to term limits

"But I'd forego term limits if there were a decent alternative. And actually, I can think of two."

"What are they?" I asked.

"First would be including 'none of the above' as an option on voting ballots. Several states have it now. But the way it works now is that if 'none of the above' wins, like it did in some district in Georgia in a primary a few years ago, second place is the winner. It would be effective if ballots offered us that option and then, whenever 'none of the above' wins, a new election is mandated for that office no matter what the office is."

"What's the second way?"

"Have election day fall on the same day personal income taxes are due."

I laughed. "That would work better than term limits."

"Term Limits aren't a cure-all. If they're ever instituted, we'll find out we've created some new problems we'll have to have the courage and resolve to deal with."

Just then, Dave came in. "Wow, it's hot in here. Let's get out of here — do a little fishing and we'll come back tonight when it's cooler. What's going on, anyway?"

"We were just talking about term limits," Mac said.

"Silveira's against them," Dave said.

"No I'm not."

"No?" he asked surprised. "When did you change your mind?"

"It's been seconds — maybe even minutes."




Read More by John Silveira

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