Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Why Term Limits Should be Opposed

Res Publica

April 1994

by Roger Beckett

Our founding fathers did not intend for the leaders of our country to remain in elected office for lengthy periods of time. The Articles of Confederation contained term limits for delegates, but the Framers of our Constitution chose not to include term limits in the Constitution. Instead, it was decided that members of the House of Representatives, the body of Congress that directly represents the people, would be sent back to the people every two years for re-election. This short term in office was put in the place of term limits to assure that our elected officials would remain accountable to the people. However, as a result of extremely high re-election rates and over-indulgence in power and privilege of our elected officials, the idea of term limits has gained momentum around the country.

Term limits can be looked at on two levels: in theory and in practice. In theory, term limits should not be necessary. One very important check of the members of the House of Representatives occurs every other November, and it occurs in the form of an election. The importance of this event cannot be lessened. Elections are a significant check on the power of our government. If we are bothered with the government that our elected officials have created, we can vote candidates into office that vow to create an improved government. Although reform of government through elections can be slow and require many elections, it is nonetheless the method of reform intended by our founders and the most stable and fundamental reform that exists.

In practice, as Robert Drinan, former Member of Congress and professor of law at Georgetown University points out, term limits are "the wrong cure to the wrong problem." Term limits will not make the rousing change that is expected of them. The problems that are behind the call for term limits are not a result of Members of Congress remaining in office for lengthy periods of time. The real problem lies in the use, or misuse, of power in the federal government and the distribution of power between our local and federal government. If judged by tax dollars, our federal elected officials control 62.5% of the power that we grant to all of our local, state, and federal governments.1 The federal government is also the branch of government that is the farthest away from the people. Thus, we have the smallest amount of control over the most powerful part of our government. The solution to this problem does not lie in limiting the terms of the people who can work with this power. The solution lies in restoring the power to where it should be, to the local governments.

Term limits, it is hoped, will assure that our elected officials will be more concerned with the good of the country rather than with their own re-elections. It is in the interest of many of our elected officials to bring benefits back to their home districts, as this keeps them in good standing with those back home. Limiting terms in office would not stop this practice of allowing the federal government to expand in order for Members of Congress to remain in good standing back home. Indeed, term limits will not assure that our elected officials will put what is good for our country over what is beneficial in their districts. Again, it arises that the problem is not the term in office of our elected officials but instead the power that they control. The proper reform to keep the interests of our elected officials balanced with the interests of our country is controlling the power of the federal government.

Controlling the power of the federal government is a complex solution that is much more difficult to grasp onto than term limits. It is difficult to conceive the steps that will be necessary to control the power of the federal government. Term limits, on the other hand, have a conceivable end in an amendment to our Constitution. We should not, however, dismiss the importance of controlling the power of our federal government just because of the complexity of the problem it presents. The way to control this does not lie in term limits. Thus, we should not replace the need for a more controlled nation government with term limits. Term limits are not a step in the right direction for controlling the power of our federal government. The way to effectively reform Congress lies in supporting and voting for candidates who uphold the belief in a stronger local government rather than a stronger national government. Reform through election is more complex and difficult to achieve than term limits, as it requires activity in each Congressional district. But reform through elections remains the most effectual reform to limit the power of our federal government.

Term limits will not achieve the reform that is needed in our federal government, because term limits will not restrain the power of our federal government. Reform through elections is more difficult because it requires each of us to make changes within our own Congressional districts, a process that can be slow in bringing about results. Reform brought about through the electoral process remains the most effective way to keep our representatives accountable and control the power of the federal government.

Roger Beckett is a sophomore from Mansfield, OH and is majoring in Political Science and History.

Endnote

1. Office of Management and Budget. Budget of the United States Government: Fiscal Year 1995. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1994. p. 237. (percentage based on 1993 receipts).Return to text.

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