Term Limits? Not Again!

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For the first eighty years of national life, however, there was almost no problem of perennial incumbency on the Hill. The federal government was small, and Congress was in session only a few months a year, so the members—especially the representatives—maintained businesses and professions that they were happy to cultivate fulltime after a short period of congressional service. They were truly citizen-legislators, comparable to the volunteer officers who led their fellow citizen-soldiers in America’s wars. But after the biggest of those wars, in 1865, things began to change.

As the country grew, so did the tasks of governing, and inevitably Congress was forced to become more professional. Committees grew in number and in power to manage the flow of legislation. Staffs were enlarged. The legislator’s job became more complex, time-consuming, and demanding but also more challenging and attractive as a career. The average length of House service doubled to eight years, and by 1901 incumbents outnumbered freshmen by a large margin. Repeated efforts were now made to amend the Constitution and lengthen the House term on the ground that it took a new member a year to start learning the ropes, followed by a year in which he had to concentrate on running again. Between 1964 and 1971 forty-four term-stretching resolutions were introduced. President Johnson urged the idea in his State of the Union address in 1966. President Nixon backed it in 1973. In the current state of low popular esteem for Congress, this is hard to imagine, but that is how quickly popular moods change.

Yet signs of the shift were on the horizon twenty years ago. In the Ninety-second Congress (1971–72) three resolutions were introduced to limit the number of terms a representative might serve. Eleven more were proposed in the next two Congresses. The focus was shifting from concern that the length of a term was too short to anxiety that the overall length of a member’s stay in office was too long. In the Ninety-fifth Congress, hearings were held (in March of 1978) on two Senate resolutions that, if turned into amendments, would have limited senators to two complete terms and representatives to seven. Two of the senators who testified in favor, interestingly, were Dennis DeConcini and John C. Danforth, both freshmen then but still there these fifteen years later. A number of political scientists also spoke to the issue, most of them then against the idea. The testimony reads as if it were written last week; one of the anti-limitation witnesses said that the proposed amendment “fits in rather well with the anti-politician rhetoric. It suggests that if you serve around here for more than 12 years something is unclean about it and something is unclean about you.”

President Johnson proposed extending the House term in his State of the Union address in 1966. Nixon backed the same idea in 1973.

That feeling was encouraged and grew in succeeding years for a number of now familiar reasons, among them the increasing sense of frustration with the mounting public debt and the apparent gridlock in government. The term-limitation movement gathered headway on the strength of charges that the problem lay with members of Congress so eager to perpetuate their jobs that they could not say no to a spending measure or yes to a curb on some special interest. There is, of course, a political aspect to such indictments, which tended to come largely from Republican sources campaigning against the power of a perennially Democratic-led Congress. That does not in itself, naturally, make them more or less true.

No one asked me, but I would not vote for congressional term limits myself, mostly because I am not convinced that integrity, courage, and large-mindedness will somehow flourish in a “lame duck” member of Congress if those qualities haven’t been present to begin with. The second-term record of Presidents since 1951 does not suggest otherwise. Nor do I like voters tying their own hands. But of course, I could be wrong. I am not wrong, however, in warning that the “lesson of history” is that we have not heard the last of this. Campaign rhetoric aside, government is here to stay, and the day for the capable amateur in government, as in almost any other field, is over. We will have to go on choosing between giving our leaders enough power to be effective and not enough to threaten our liberties, knowing all the while that they will be, like us, men and women and not angels. The term-limitation fight is just one more scene in an ongoing drama of government by the people.