Term Limits

The Federalist Papers are a collection of essays written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. They were an attempt by these men to persuade the citizens of New York to ratify the Constitution and the book is generally regarded as the best collective statement of the meaning and purpose of the document they wanted New York to ratify. Madison is usually credited with writing the 55th Paper. In that Paper the shows how the Founders simply assumed that the members of the House of Representatives would change every two years. They thought that a good thing — new blood and folks elected because they more closely represented the wishes of their constituency than did the Senate which was to be chosen by the several State Legislatures. There are other assumptions at work in this paper, as they are throughout the Federalist Papers as a whole. One of the assumptions had to do with the “virtue” — which at that time meant “civic virtue” of the ordinary citizen who would always attempt to do what was best for the country at large. In response to the critics who had their doubts about the virtue of the citizens,  or indeed those who represented them, Madison had this to say:

“I am unable to conceive that the people of America, in their present temper, or under circumstances which can speedily happen, will choose, and every second year repeat the choice of, sixty-five or a hundred men who would be disposed to form and pursue a scheme of tyranny or treachery. . . . I am equally unable to conceive that there are at this time, or can be in any short time, in the United States, any sixty-five or a hundred men capable of recommending themselves to the choice of the people at large, who would either desire or dare, within the short space of two years, to betray the solumn trust committed to them. . . .Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousies of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

What we have here, by contemporary standards, is eighteenth century naiveté. Madison shows himself convinced that the citizens of this country have sufficient virtue to select the very best legislators and that those same legislators would commit themselves to the common good — since they are in office for only two years — or they would be dismissed from office and replaced by those who would more nearly reflect the views of those who elected them in the first place.

What has come about, as we all now know, is a government of extremely well-paid professional politicians who are elected again and again and who cling to the offices they are elected to the way a drowning man clings to the life raft that will save his life. The citizens have shown themselves bereft of “virtue” to the extent that if they vote at all they vote for individuals who represent the interests not of the citizens at large, but of the corporations that put up the money to have them nominated in the first place. The allegiance of those elected officials is, naturally, to those very corporations they are bound to and not to the people whom they supposedly represent.

What it all boils down to is that term limits would be the only thing at this point that would restore this government to a shadow of the image the Founders had in mind when they wrote the Constitution. The basic concept that comes through loud and clear on nearly every page of the Federalist Papers is that of a well-informed citizenry that would insist that their representatives work for them or they would be summarily replaced. This will not, it cannot, happen today as long as members of Congress are allowed to hold office interminably. We have term limits for the President and there should be term limits for members of Congress. Otherwise, we shall have the continued boondoggle that passes for representative government in which representatives pursue self-interest (which is identical with corporate interest) and not the best interest of their constituents or their country, a country in which the citizens are currently bound by the “chains of despotism” if you will.


19 thoughts on “Term Limits

  1. Hugh, very interesting post. I have been a fan of term limits. I think politicians are like the old line about guests and fish as they need to be thrown out before they stink up the place. There are many examples on both sides of the hall that have been too enamored with power and did something devilish or stupid. Plus, I have long felt that Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid, before he retired, were the poster children to what is wrong with Washington. They both knew how to be sneaky when not leading and seemingly unaware how sneaky they were when they become in charge.

    You could do an hour and half play on both of them contradicting their earlier selves. My personal favorite is McConnell saying on camera in 2008 that climate change is real and man influenced and we need to do something about it. What a difference some funding and time makes. Keith

    • You need to reply to the two comments below! I thought they had good points to make — but not good enough to make me change my mind on this issue. Stinking fish indeed!

  2. This was a brilliant post and I feel that our representatives for years have been bought by corporate interests and have espoused term limits for as long as I can remember. My wife, on the other hand says that term limits won’t work, that the current politicians will just get their buddies in office and that nothing significant would change. What are your thoughts?

    • If that were to happen then we would get what we deserve. Perhaps we are getting that right now. But, on the whole, I see it as a definite step toward what the Founders had in mind. I do think it would be a “significant change.”

    • Greetings. Hugh, asked me to opine here. I believe in term limits, but the downside I think is fair criticism, is it takes a period to learn how the system works. I would suggest two terms only for that purpose. The other is we need to shorten the election period and add an amendment that has full transparency over money and overrides Citizens-United and McCuthcheon. Our congressmen and women spend an inordinate amount of time dialing for dollars. As for your wife’s concerns, there is always that risk unless we limit the money or make it fully transparent. Keith

  3. My only concern with term limits I learned years ago as a low level lobbyist. Term limits would empower unelected staffers who would wield all the power. That would be a serious danger to democracy.

  4. First off … I had just taken my first bite of pizza when I read ” … the ordinary citizen who would always attempt to do what was best for the country at large.” I am okay now, after nearly choking to death on the pizza! That said, I once stood firmly against term limits because I felt that those who were doing the job well should be kept in office, and those who were not would not be re-elected anyway. I have come to see the error of my ways, and now strongly support a two-term limitation. Obviously, Madison and I both had a pie-in-the-sky vision of the civic virtue of human beings. And that said … excellent post, Hugh!

      • They probably never were, but as you say … certainly less self-absorbed. Today we see what I call the ‘me-istic’ society … every person for themselves and to heck with everybody else. Not everyone is like this … I am not, you are not, and the vast majority of the people who read my blog are not … but I know many who are. Sigh.

  5. Dr. Curtler,

    As always, I enjoyed reading your though-provoking post. In this instance, however, I must disagree.

    A reading of the Federalist Papers can lead one to support term limits; the same reading can also lead one to oppose term limits. I agree that the Founders seemed to have an almost naive faith that the best people would rise to positions of elected leadership — I think this is based in their assumption that they were the best type pf people and that others to follow would be like them. One also sees in the Founders a Lockean faith in the reasonableness and rationality of majorities that more modern observers find hard to share.

    Nevertheless, as far as the Federalist Papers are concerned, there is no necessary reason to believe that being an incumbent would disqualify someone from either (1) being the best person for the position or (2) being perceived by voters as the best person. In either case, the incumbent should be re-elected, given the overall logic of the Federalist Papers.
    Yet it is not the text of the Federalist Papers that is the basis for my misgivings about what seems to be a simple solution to a complex problem term limits. I think there are three central objections to the proposition that term limits are a solution to our political problems:
    • First, if members of Congress were subject to term limits, then both those who represent their constituents ably and those who fail to do so would be subject to the same limits, despite the will of the voters.
    • Second, continuous turnover among members of Congress would in effect, leave control of both chambers of Congress in the hands of a relatively permanent cadre of lobbyists and staffers. Neither of these two groups is remotely accountable to the voters, even in principle, much less in fact.
    • Third, the fundamental problem with Congress is not the length of the terms served by politicians. The problem is the amount of money required for any politician to seek public office and the effect of money upon those who hold it.

    A publicly-funded election system, along with other important modifications to our election protocols, bears the promise of our electing politicians based on their political abilities rather than on their fund-raising abilities.

    However, NOTHING, not the abolition of the Electoral College, not a publicly-financed system of elections, not rigorously enforced campaign funding regulations, not a Constitutionally explicit amendment that guarantees citizens the right to vote, not a national holiday for elections, and not universal and automatic voter registration, will guarantee the public will make good electoral choices.

    Nonetheless, changes such as these would be far more democratic in both substance and effect than would the establishment of term limits for politicians, at least in my opinion.

    Again, thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking essay.

    • I would add a forth argument against term limits.

      • Fourth, while all elected officials are expected to represent a local electorate, they are also required to exercise their good offices to ensure the well-being of the nation, as such. The more time a person spends in government, the more information they have at their disposal and the more aware they become of other views on important matters. This brings forth the possibility that one comes to understand the difference between national and local interests, choosing which takes priority in given instances. Time in government also brings forth the capacity for wisdom and competence in the business of politics itself – what Max Weber called, “the long, slow boring of hard boards.” Amateurism in government leads neither to an understanding of the national interest nor competent governance. Democratic government requires both.

      My apologies for not including this in the original.

      • ERRATUM: “a fourth argument”, not “a forth argument”. I hate spelling errors — especially when they are my own!

      • Thanks for the input. I don’t think there is any one solution — short of educating the population properly. But that will not happen, I fear. In the short-term, limiting the amount of damage corrupt officials can do strikes me as a step in the right direction — despite the drawbacks you note. I do think by the way, that you share some of Madison’s optimism about the nature of public officials and the public in general. Thanks for the good comment, Jerry.

      • My faith in the public does not extend to the Madisonian or Lockean end of the spectrum, though it may seem so Indeed, I am more attracted to Mencken’s oft-quoted comment that “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of American public.”

        The majority is never right simply because it is the majority — numerosity is not luminosity. All the same, a democratic process can result in good government, or at least accountable government, with no guarantees and if only by happenstance, whereas an undemocratic process can do neither, guaranteed.

        As one can see, the Philosopher King, the Ubermensch, and the Apparatchik are not models of political virtue in my estimation.

        I guess I am not well-suited to life in Trumpistan…

      • I was always puzzled that Aristotle thought a group of men would make the correct decision more often than a single one. That always struck me as false — especially if the single one was Aristotle! But the enlightenment thinkers seem to have adopted that view in their almost blind acceptance of the notion of majority rule. Odd. I think there is ample evidence that the majority is frequently dead wrong.

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