Congressmen Jodey Arrington and Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California, were the first Members of Congress to jointly introduce bipartisan term limits legislation in the 115th Congress. The legislation would limit members of the U.S. House of Representatives to serving six two-year terms and members of the U.S. Senate to serving two six-year terms. In his piece in Tribtalk, a publication of the Texas Tribune, Arrington, Representative of Texas’ 19th district, investigates the topic of possible congressional term limits. He does so by paralleling congressional terms and the personal arguments set forth in George Washington’s “Farewell Address” for his refusal to run for reelection. He argues that Washington was a “selfless leader”, and we could use more of his kind in the nation’s capital today. He argues that Washington “understood that he needed to set a precedent that even presidents were — first and foremost — American citizens, no greater than anyone else”, and therefore to reaffirm that Congressmen are mere citizens, we should limit their propensity to hold political office for an unreasonable duration. Arrington attempts to accomplish two feats with his proposed bill: he wishes to stick up for democracy as a human good, and he touches on the issue that seems to plague America’s social state today, the large gap between the rich and the poor that makes America seem very undemocratic. The author’s thesis is that “Setting limits on the time politicians can serve in a particular office will not solve all the problems with Washington’s broken culture. However, I believe it will help achieve a much-needed, positive dynamic: more courage to solve the big problems for our country rather than congressional leaders planning their careers and protecting their longevity”. He provides shocking evidence that there is not much turnover in Congress, and eludes to the result of a more aristocratic ruling class wherein the representatives of the people are not checked by the interest of the people.
However, Arrington confuses two things in his argument for his proposed bill. First, he ignores the natural differences between the executive office and Congress, and therefore does not do justice to Washington’s argument for precedent. And Second, he ignores what many of the other founders understood regarding term-limits and the political laxity that they may proliferate. The office of the President and the duty of a Congressman are very different. Even the differences between houses are very different. In order to Understand this difference all one needs to do is refer to Madison’s notes at the Federal Convention. But these differences between houses still exist today: the Senate is fewer in number and Senators serve longer terms. This is because senators are to play a counterbalancing role to the House. As for a more recent example, in Ben Sasse’s book The Vanishing American Adult, he reveals that he did not take the floor of the Senate until his second year in office because he was learning the ropes. He also reveals that this is decorum: most senators act accordingly. They do not introduce new legislation their first year because they still have much to learn including the wants of their constituents, and how best to further those wants. The goal of the Senator, as Madison points out in Federalist 10, is to serve as an “auxiliary filtration” for “factious passion”. He does so by checking his people and checking others in the nation’s capital in the complementary branch of congress. In other words, the Senator must understand both the government and the people at first. Then, he must understand what is reasonable and good for both in order to urge legislation that leads to a certain harmony between the people of the state and the people of the Union. The Senator is supposed to play a moderating and balancing act, and this takes artfulness and therefore time to master.
What Arrington ignores about Washington is that he did not mean to urge legislation limiting the term of a president, but rather that he was introducing a precedent that would moderate the people from appointing a Caesar. A precedent is different from a law because a law affords the government the authority to punish a transgressor whereas a precedent urges the people to honor a tradition. Washington had the political clout to urge an amendment limiting the terms of presidential office, but he did not do so. The reason was that Washington, like many of the founders, understood that mores and habits rather than laws were necessary for democracy and self-government. Although Arrington wishes to change the situation of congressional reelection, he is remiss in that he ignores what is at the root of reelection woes: low voter turnout and the tendency of the American people to let their political duty slip by the wayside. The bill that Arrington urges would reinforce bad political habits that the founders would scoff at: the habit of the government to rely upon laws alone for good government, and the habit of the people to clamor for laws because they wish to ignore the important and grueling work that is civic duty. Furthermore, Washington did not seek a third election because he did not want to become Caesar, but also very simply because he did not want to become president for a third term. He wanted to return to his family and his farm: he even writes to his wife Martha telling her so as early as 1775. Doubtless, Washington also understood that this was a time of fragility for American self-government and prudence would dictate that he not run again. He had no desire of making a law establishing a term limit that followed his conduct; however, he hoped that future presidents would be prudent enough to follow his political example on their own behest.
In addition to Washington’s disagreement with Arrington’s proposed legislation, various other framers disagrees with him. James Wilson and James Iredell, two early members of The Supreme Court, disagreed with term limits when the Anti-federalists would urge them. But what is most pressing is Alexander Hamilton’s argument in Federalist 72 regarding term limits. Although he is writing about presidential term limits, much of his argument applies unilaterally for representatives of the people. He writes that limiting terms would destroy the incentives for good conduct in office. He writes, “One ill effect of the exclusion would be a diminution of the inducements to good behavior”. In other words, the public official would not only refuse to act well, but he might attempt to act poorly in spite of that government that he is supposed to serve. It is no wonder that rumors of Obama giving large sums of US aid to countries in the middle east like Syria and Iran surfaced directly before the presidential election: the people could not trust that he would do good because he had no reason to. If a congressman was not eligible for reelection what incentive would urge him to serve the public good? Hamilton writes, “Even the love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds” would discourage a president from attempting to accomplish great public goods if he knew that power would change hands before he could conclude his endeavor. This is because he may become jealous of the fame that his predecessor would claim by concluding his project. Additionally, Hamilton argues that the potential of great men would be lost. If they could not aim so highly in public office, He argued, the would become “discontented ghosts”: they would not attempt to accomplish great things for their country because they would begin to believe that they could not due to arbitrary term limits.
In addition to the arguments of the Framers, the Heritage Foundation conducted a study in 2009 to track state-based term limits. They found that there was little change in the efficiency of state governments who instituted term limits for state representatives. The amount of spending did not decrease, nor did the approval ratings of the representatives: everything remained virtually the same. The fact of the matter is that we have more to lose if ambition cannot be exercised in a controlled fashion, over a large period of time, and to our benefit, by our representatives. Hamilton even argues that the way in which we will get Caesars in the presidential office is if great men are withheld from running for another term and the people love them enough to follow them. Their spite for the government that does not serve the interests of the people by putting good men at the helm may be transferred to the people who love them. Although Arrington is right to point to Congress and its operation as a large problem with our nation’s governance, Congressional term limits do not unlock the full potential of citizens hoping to become representatives of the people by providing proper incentives for Congressmen. Additionally, term limits do not provide helpful incentives for checking the ambition of those in office, especially in their later terms. Nor do term limits enlarge civic engagement or foster a thriving political culture. And finally, he gets Washington and the rest of the Founders wrong in his understanding of term limits. Congressman Arrington: If you are interested in arguing for term limits, then your best bet is to rely upon the words of the Anti-Federalists, not of Washington.
Because you made it all the way to the end: Here’s my favorite painting of George Washington! It is by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris and entitled “The American Cincinnatus”