Time for Term Limits Again

At its genesis 2,500 years ago, democracy incorporated term limits as a safeguard against corruption and complacency. 

Aristotle believed that frequent rotation in office would foster civic involvement and constrain a politician's ability to acquire power. Members of the Athenian governing council were chosen by lottery and eligible only upon agreeing to serve no more than two years.

Several of America's founding fathers, including Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson, championed term limits.  Term limits were included in the Articles of Confederation, the Virginia Plan for the U.S. Constitution, and the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776. 

The framers of our federal Constitution omitted term limits only because they believed self-imposed term limits would be a tradition. For a while, they were.  In the 36 years following ratification of the Constitution, the average length of service for Senators was slightly less than five years.  During the 19th century, the average Congressman served only 4.5 years.  Henry Clay was elected Speaker of the House during his first term. 

Unfortunately, this spirit of civic virtue yielded to self-aggrandizement. Early on, legislators served a few terms in a public office and then returned to private life to live under the laws they created. Today, politicians make a career out of getting re-elected to the same office.

Opponents of term limits argue that Americans are well-served by professional politicians. Term limits, they say, would result in the country being governed by neophytes.  Some argue that “America's challenges today are far more complex than those of yesteryear and demand experienced policymakers.”  Yet we replace the president (and most governors) every four to eight years, and no significant portion of the citizenry is clamoring for a repeal of term limits on the executive branch.

In Pennsylvania, our highly “professionalized” General Assembly-which is among the highest compensated and has the most staff in the nation-has missed the state budget deadline seven consecutive years. It has achieved for the Commonwealth mediocrity, or worse, in public education and economic growth-among other categories.            

The University of California Irvine's Mark Petracca once punctuated the matter saying: “There is no empirical evidence that professional politicians do a better job of governing than amateurs at any level of government.”

Opponents frequently offer two other arguments, neither of which is valid: 

“We already have term limits, they're called elections.” This cliché ignores that we do not have competitive elections, which is why incumbents in Congress and many state legislatures get re-elected over 90 percent of the time.

Incumbents have erected strong barriers for challengers to overcome, such as the gerrymandering of political boundary lines and fundraising restrictions that make it extremely difficult for challengers to raise money. Incumbents lavish upon themselves a number of electoral advantages, such as mailing promotional newsletters, calendars, maps and other items to their constituents, courtesy of the taxpayers.

“Term limits restrict the voters' choice and are undemocratic.” As the Wall Street Journal's John Fund wrote in Cleaning House, “If a majority of people supports term limits, as a condition of employment for their elected officials, then term limits are democracy in action. They will merely be adding to existing restrictions such as age and length of residency.”

Very few issues resonate with Americans more than term limits, with research showing that two-thirds of the people believe term limits are a good idea.

Corruption in Harrisburg is rampant while state policymakers ignore pressing problems, including a looming seven-fold increase in public pension payments, ever-growing Medicaid and prison costs, and the need for accountability and transparency in state spending.

Now more than at any time in recent memory, the people are pleading with Harrisburg and Washington for a restoration of the principles upon which Pennsylvania and America were built. That career politicians remain tone-deaf spells the need to bring back term limits.

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Joseph D. Sterns is Director of Communications with the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.