When I hear calls for term limits, are we really trying to limit the politician or the voter? Are the well intended calls for term limits filled with possible unintended consequences? The arguments for and against term limits is as old as the nation itself. Notable on the pro-term limits side were Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, opposing were James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Our Framers argued 230 years ago the same points we hear today, and we all know how the discussion turned out. There are no term limits defined in the Constitution.
The Framers did not have any reason to believe that government would become as complex as it is today, and indeed in the first 100 years of the nation, a part-time legislature was the norm. During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, term limits were argued and rejected. The Framers determined that instead short, well defined terms provided a better method of ensuring a legislature in tune with the citizenry's needs, with Roger Sherman saying, "Frequent elections are necessary to preserve the good behavior of rulers. They also tend to give permanency to the Government, by preserving that good behavior, because it ensures their re-election."
Many would argue that the Framers lived in a different time, and their arguments no longer are valid. Many others argue that the case against term limits are as valid now as they were then, as is the case for the other provisions in the Constitution.
We can see the Framers' discussion play out in the Federalist Papers. Jefferson, Franklin, and others envisioning a part-time government, thought that there would be little need for a complicated government, and turnover would not be a problem. But Madison, perhaps envisioning the future complexity of government. argues in Federalist No. 53, that re-election by members of government will cause them to master the art of government and provide institutional knowledge to the newly elected members who rely on them to provide the experience needed to accomplish long-term governmental goals. Hamilton knew and explained, in Federalist No. 72, that term limits removed an inhibition on bad behavior since constantly going in front of voters meant that elected officials must always strive to serve in a responsible manner or else they would be turned out at the next election. Gouverneur Morris stated succinctly, "The ineligibility proposed by the [terms limitation] clause as it stood tended to destroy the great motive to good behavior, the hope of being rewarded by a re-appointment."
John Adams, a great believer in personal freedom and responsibility, also argued against term limits, saying that it is the right of the citizens to choose their leaders without restrictions.
"There is no right clearer, and few of more importance, than that the people should be at liberty to choose the ablest and best men, and that men of the greatest merit should exercise the most important employments; yet, upon the present [term limits] supposition, the people voluntarily resign this right, and shackle their own choice.... [T]hey must all return to private life, and be succeeded by another set, who have less wisdom, wealth, virtue, and less of the confidence and affection of the people."
Current term limit proponents argue that in the past, legislative turnover was much higher than we see today. They say that modern reelection rates approach 90% which results in an insulated political class who are no longer in touch with their constituents. What this argument fails to mention is that the elected official is returned to office by a majority of his constituents. Every two (or four, or six) years, voters are presented with the opportunity to return their elected officials to office, or send them back to their homes. Elections are for ridding us of the politicians who are not performing up to our expectations. Term limits are for eliminating politicians who we feel ARE performing according to their constituents needs and wishes. If one truly believes a politician should be removed from office, do it the American way, with facts, ideas and the voting booth.
More modern arguments against term limits say that term limits increase the influence of lobbyists and professional staffers. These interest groups do not labor under elective scrutiny, term limits, or any real constraints on their power. They have an easy time influencing new and inexperienced officials. Furthermore, term limits do not give legislators enough time to grow accustomed to their position and reach a point where they can be maximally effective for their constituents. Here is one of the unintended consequences that falls out of the term limit movement, the entrenched professional bureaucrat's influence actually increases with a higher turnover of elected officials since the official no longer has the institutional knowledge of accomplishing the legislative task, and instead relies more heavily on these unelected bureaucrats.
My preference is to have a candidate of integrity and with the institutional knowledge to perform his duties. It is my opinion that I would rather return honest men to office than to rely on machine-type politics to select endlessly changing candidates, more influential lobbying on inexperienced elected officials, or entrenched bureaucrats with no accountability to the voters. We need politicians of high integrity at all levels of government, and we should not impose an institutionalized hop-scotch system of elected service. In a U.S. House speech, Henry Hyde said that, "… the case for term limits is a rejection of professionalism in politics. Term limits limit the the field of potential candidates - what successful person in mid-life would leave a career…" Hyde thought that term limits would have the result of turning public service into, "… a sabbatical for the well to do elite and bored retirees."
Once a modern politician has decided to enter politics, they sometimes choose to make a professional commitment to their constituents.. Term limiting a politician does nothing to end a politician's tenure since there are many offices that a politician can fill. Term limits rather promotes an "up-or-out" mentality, and provides an even greater distraction from the elected official's real job, which is to serve his constituents. If we impose term limits, do we really limit the politician? Nothing really stops a person from moving up to another office anyway, so a Representative can serve x number of years then move to the next higher or different office where they serve another x number of years. Have we really accomplished anything? All we have done is create a formula for a politician to continue service by hopping around. We really haven't addressed Franklin's concerns about career politicians.
A better solution is an open, fair, streamlined, process of recall of an elected official who constantly fails to serve his constituents.