Our nation's Founders counseled against setting term limits on any public office, arguing that it should be left up to the voters to decide whether a given public official should be re-elected for another term. If an official has served well and won the people's approval, so goes the argument, they will naturally re-elect him; if, on the other hand, he has served badly and won public disapproval, he will be voted out of office. Also, eschewing term limits leaves public officials free to decide whether to run for another term or not. For almost 150 years, following the example of George Washington, U.S. presidents voluntarily restricted themselves to a maximum of two terms in office. There was nothing wrong with that; on the contrary, this praiseworthy practice reflected the character and nobility of our nation's earlier leaders, who were selfless public servants rather than opportunistic politicians. Leaders were free to decide whether to run for another term or not, and the people were free to decide whether to re-elect them or not. The thinking was that term limits should be voluntary, not imposed by law. The Founders' rejection of constitutionally mandated term limits was thus a sign of their respect for the freedom of both leaders and people.
I have taken the Founders' position on this matter in this article. I contend that the Twenty-Second Amendment to our Constitution, adopted in the early 1950s following the lengthy administration of FDR, should be repealed. Supporters of term limits on federal public offices claim that such limits provide a healthy and necessary check on corruption, careerism, and excessive centralization of power in the hands of a few leaders. However, the two-term limit imposed on the presidency by the Twenty-Second Amendment has not resulted in a less corrupt presidency since the days of FDR; on the contrary, we are now living under the most corrupt president in American history. Legally imposed term limits simply force corrupt and unscrupulous leaders to confine their corruption to a shorter time period, while preventing the voters from re-electing a good leader who deserves more than two terms. Moreover, power-hungry tyrants never allow legally imposed term limits to thwart their ambitions; they simply abrogate them, changing the laws to suit their agenda.
In other words, legally imposed term limits can never guarantee honest, responsible, and limited government. Only honest and responsible leaders of good moral and religious character can provide that. The core issue here is personal responsibility vs. legal and political structures. As Pope Benedict XVI reminded us in his encyclical Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope), man is always free and must always make his decisions anew; therefore, good structures alone cannot guarantee good government. That depends on the personal character of those who govern. Many Tea Party activists are attempting to compensate for the increasing corruption of our federal government by legally restricting the number of terms senators and representatives may serve. By so doing, they are applying a political and legal solution to a moral and personal problem. A government is only as good as the people who run it. As long as we have corrupt, irresponsible, and tyrannical leaders, we will have corrupt, irresponsible, and tyrannical government regardless of what the Constitution says or of what term limits may be on the books. The Tea Party activists who favor imposing new term limits on Congress should listen to the wisdom of the Founders in this regard and attack the problem of corruption at its root by focusing on personal responsibility rather than espousing a top-down solution that won't fix the problem and will further restrict the liberties of the American people.
Okay, enough said--here's the article.
REVISITING THE TWENTY-SECOND AMENDMENT: A THIRD TERM FOR PRESIDENT BUSH
by Justin Soutar
December 21, 2007
I am not particularly a fan of President Bush. As an American Catholic, I certainly applaud our president’s sustained defense of the right to life of all innocent human beings from conception to natural death, and I generally approve of the measures he has taken to help eradicate the curses of abortion, embryonic stem-cell research involving abortion, and euthanasia in the United States and around the world. President Bush’s continued defense of traditional marriage against the enormous pressure of a few misguided social activists is similarly refreshing. I have been proud to hear this president mention God in his speeches without fear of retaliation by anti-Christian groups such as the ACLU. Moreover, I also generally approve of the USA PATRIOT Act, a comprehensive piece of legislation which he signed in 2001 to facilitate governmental action against terrorism. I have steadily supported the war in Afghanistan from 2001 until 2007. Bush’s appointments of Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court met with my satisfaction. In addition, I was pleased with Bush for signing the Broadcast Decency Bill into law in 2006, which raised by ten times the FCC fine for instances of indecent pictures and language in the media. Finally, I agree with the president’s principles on taxes, affirmative action, and gun ownership.
Yet despite all of my momentous differences with President George W. Bush, for some time now I have been considering the idea that he should be able to run for a third consecutive term. Why? Why would someone who so strenuously opposes the neoconservative ideology favor granting President Bush another four years in office? Perhaps I have gone crazy? If our highest public servant has violated the Constitution and wreaked significant havoc to our country both domestically and overseas as I believe he has, why wouldn’t I be in favor of impeachment instead?
All of these good questions depend upon and point to a broader issue: Why revisit the Twenty-Second Amendment to our Constitution, which stipulates that “no person shall be elected to the office of the president more than twice”? Nearly everyone knows the reason for the passage of this amendment in 1951. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had been elected to four consecutive terms in office stretching from the midst of the Great Depression in 1933 to the end of World War II in 1945. Many Americans felt that in this twelve-year-long tenure, a single president accumulated an undue amount of power and influence over the federal government. Indeed, the United States had distinguished itself from other nations in the late 1700s by deciding to check government power through the holding of periodic elections for all members of the legislative and executive branches of government.
Since the mid-twentieth century, Americans have generally come to understand democracy as a system in which no single public servant holds very much power for very much time. They point to the example of founders such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, who voluntarily departed office after serving two terms, as evidence that no president should ever be allowed to remain in office longer than that. By and large, Americans support the Twenty-Second Amendment without question as a beneficial curtailment of executive authority and an accurate reflection of the intent of our nation’s founders that we maintain a limited government, that we be “a nation of laws and not of men.”
However, I have come to believe that this amendment, far from being beneficial and traditional, is harmful to our country and represents a serious misunderstanding of what our nation’s founders actually intended. In a series of articles which advocated ratification of the Constitution and which were printed in several New York newspapers in 1787 and 1788 entitled The Federalist Papers, founding father Alexander Hamilton argued convincingly against setting any sort of term limit on the “office of the chief magistrate” (the presidency). In this argument, which is several thousands words long, Hamilton offers five distinct reasons to support his position. We will review this rationale briefly and then focus mainly on the one overarching reason I find most compelling. The Federalist No. 72 (ed. Garry Wills, Bantam Books, New York, 1982, pp. 367-370) reads as follows:
Nothing appears more plausible upon first sight, nor more ill founded upon close inspection, than a scheme, which in relation to the present point has had some respectable advances—I mean that of continuing the chief magistrate in office for a certain time, and then excluding him from it, either for a limited period, or for ever after….Often our perception of what our nation’s founders intended is distorted by our own contemporary ways of thinking. Hence the importance of returning to the actual writings which those esteemed men have left us. The text above may be somewhat difficult reading for a twenty-first-century American, but even the casual reader can tell that Hamilton was definitely not in favor of a term-limited presidency.
One ill effect of the exclusion would be diminution of the inducements to good behavior. There are few men who would not feel much less zeal in the discharge of a duty, when they were conscious that the advantages of the station, with which it was connected, must be relinquished at a determinate period, than when they were permitting to entertain a hope of obtaining by meriting a continuance of them….
Would it promote the peace of the community, or the stability of the government, to have half a dozen men who had had credit enough to be raised to the seat of the supreme magistracy, wandering among the people like discontented ghosts, and sighing for a place which they were destined never more to possess?....
A fourth ill effect of the exclusion would be the banishing men from stations, in which in certain emergencies of the state their presence might be of the greatest moment to the public interest or safety. There is no nation which has not at one period or another experienced an absolute necessity of the services of particular men, in particular situations…How unwise therefore must be every such self-denying ordinance, as serves to prohibit a nation from making use of its own citizens, in the manner best suited to its exigencies and circumstances!....
A fifth ill effect of the exclusion would be, that it would operate as a constitutional interdiction of stability in the administration. By necessitating a change of men, in the first office in the nation, it would necessitate a mutability of measures…And we need not be apprehensive there will be too much stability, while there is even the option of changing; nor need we desire to prohibit the people from continuing their confidence, where they think it may be safely placed, and where by constancy on their part they may obviate the fatal inconveniences of fluctuating councils and a variable policy….
There is an excess of refinement in the idea of disabling the people to continue in office men, who had entitled themselves, in their opinion, to approbation and confidence…
Hamilton warned that a term limit on the chief executive office of the nation would encourage unscrupulous men to take advantage of the short-lived tenure for their own personal benefit. With a two-term limit that effectively renders the president a lame duck (unaccountable to the public) for half of his administration, we would expect corrupt, unethical or immoral behavior to surface mainly during those latter four years. Unfortunately, this has proven true in the cases of Richard Nixon (Watergate in 1973), Ronald Reagan (Iran-contra scandal in 1986), Bill Clinton (Lewinsky scandal revealed in 1997), and the younger George Bush (role of Vice President Cheney’s petroleum firm Halliburton in Iraq war; the continuing New Orleans disaster; Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff lobbying scandals in 2005; Scooter Libby indictment, Karl Rove scandals, and warrant-less wiretapping revealed in 2006). Corruption has infested the presidency with increasing vigor since the Twenty-Second Amendment came into force almost sixty years ago. Presidential approval ratings during a second term have routinely plummeted for almost every two-term president since Lyndon Johnson, as well as for many single-term presidents, usually because their concern for the good of the people became distorted or overshadowed by personal and corporate interests.
Another reason Hamilton put forward against a term limit is that our nation may desperately need the continued services of one particular executive during a time of war or other national crisis. The long presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt was a fruit of such circumstances; Americans chose to reelect him three times because they were passing though the wrenching experiences of economic depression and world war. Voters intuitively understand that the nation needs continuous leadership during such a challenging period. For this reason, every American president who served during an officially declared war was reelected. The people should not be barred from keeping in office for upwards of eight years a single individual whom they believe will guide their country safely though a difficult time.
The final reason Hamilton advances against “exclusion” is that a term limit harms the stability of the nation by ordering a change in presidents after every few years. A president who knows that he will be in office for no more than eight years will not be too inclined to pursue policies that require more than a decade to develop, or that will benefit the nation twenty or thirty years from now, as he knows that the next president can soon undo whatever he tries to accomplish. This compulsory turnover of chief executives, Hamilton observed, would result in “fluctuating councils and a variable policy,” which he terms “fatal inconveniences” to the country. There is no doubt that occasionally a particular president might pursue some detrimental measures which need to be corrected by a future president. But Hamilton was not discussing that; rather, he was warning of the threat to American stability posed by recurrent, massive, radical paradigm shifts in government policy in general, such as from isolationism to interventionism, from overregulation to laissez-faire economics, from a weak central government to a federal police state, and from insufficient national defense to large and permanent standing armies. Continuity should be the norm, while change should be the exception. The Twenty-Second Amendment represents a rejection of this wise counsel.
I confess that I am totally enamored of Hamilton’s logic concerning this issue. Yet for me the most compelling argument against term limits is implicitly present in all the reasons which Hamilton listed. It is this: The people should be free to decide whether to keep a particular president in office or to elect a new president. They should not be forced to automatically elect a new head of government either every four or eight years.
The threat of a corrupt, power-hungry demagogue, which the Twenty-Second Amendment was passed to protect us from, can be dealt with just as easily by having the people vote him out of office in the next election. Some people might remind me that Adolf Hitler was democratically elected by an unsuspecting German populace, that he legally enacted a constitutional amendment allowing himself to serve as chancellor for life, and that he became the infamous genocidal warmongering egomaniac we remember today. They might point out that with a term-limiting amendment at least we are insuring ourselves against such a dangerous dictator. However, this line of reasoning is flawed in one important respect: determined absolute dictators do not allow constitutions, amendments, or laws to stand in their way. Hitler suspended the constitution of Germany altogether and imposed martial law as soon as he wished. If the American people ever become gullible enough to elect a Hitler-like president, he would laugh at the Twenty-Second Amendment and proceed to ignore it for his own purposes. In other words, the main reason why most Americans like the amendment turns out to be completely insubstantial upon closer examination.
And while each American president can choose not to seek reelection, as our leaders for the first one hundred fifty years were accustomed to do after serving two terms, this in no way demands that such custom become the unchanging law of the land. The Twenty-Second Amendment unnecessarily restricts the freedom of both electors and the elected. Hamilton notes that any perceived benefit from a law which can expel bad presidents from office is far outweighed by the disadvantage that the same law will also force from office excellent and much needed presidents. Many Americans think that the two-term limit is among the guardians of our democracy, when in fact it is the opposite—it prevents the people from maintaining in office a wise and capable president whom they admire and trust.
It is remarkable how all the “ill effects” of a term limit on the presidency have manifested themselves just as Hamilton predicted more than two centuries ago: instability, insecurity, and corruption. The latter deserves a little more attention.
Evidently, the CEOs of mega-corporations love the current presidential system because it gives them enormous opportunity for profit and allows them to routinely select new presidential candidates who will further their own narrow selfish interests. The cost of bribing even several dozen candidates is trivial compared with the financial rewards to be reaped when one of those candidates reaches the highest office in the land. Under pretext of national security, or free-market economics, or freedom and democracy, or some combination of these excuses, the president allows the mega-corporations a broader sphere of influence and then, by the time the people figure out what has happened, he is a lame duck anyway. The Clinton and Bush administrations have been excellent examples of this corporate corruption of the presidency. The abortion industry thrived under the care of President Bill Clinton, and it’s no coincidence that he and Wal-Mart both came from Arkansas. Under President Bush we have witnessed a war in Iraq for the defense manufacturers and oil tycoons, low foreign trade barriers and amnesty for illegal immigrants for all the transnational corporations, neglect of New Orleans levees and Minnesota bridges, inattention to the Sudanese genocide, the birth of a new nuclear weaponry program (Complex 2030), compulsory voting machines with deliberate design flaws—the list goes on and on.
So now that I have explained the disadvantages of the Twenty-Second Amendment to our Constitution in general, I turn to the question of why I favor permitting President Bush to run for a third term in particular. Several factors have combined to lead me to adopt this opinion.
For one thing, this president is sincere. In stark contrast to President Bill Clinton, a habitual TV liar who knew he was deceiving, President Bush believes what he says whether it is true or not. This sincerity remains refreshing for me despite all of the damage Bush has done. I would rather have a sincere president who knows what he believes than an insincere president who deliberately deceives the public.
A second major factor in my opinion is the sorry state of the 2008 presidential campaign. The high-profile candidates being fawned upon by the corporate-owned media range from mediocre to appalling at a time when the need for a truly great president has never been more painfully felt.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has flip-flopped on the issue of abortion and plans to increase American defense spending above already ridiculous levels. The dangerous, power-hungry former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani adamantly supports the unrestricted legalization of abortion and sodomy and would have no qualms about starting a nuclear war in the Middle East. Former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson is a practiced lobbyist and wealthy trial lawyer who opposes everything I stand for. California Representative Duncan Hunter and Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo do not represent me on most of the issues either. Texas Representative Ron Paul would make a truly great president, but it is highly unlikely he will win the Republican nomination. Arizona Senator John McCain and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee hold praiseworthy moral values, but the odds are against both men. On the Democratic side, all of the candidates support abortion, and the currently leading contender—-New York Senator Hillary Clinton—-makes me sick to my stomach.
On the other hand, when compared with any one of the Republican or Democratic hopefuls, I find President Bush to be the lesser of two evils. No, Bush may not be the “truly great” leader America desperately needs at this time. But I believe that having George Bush continue in office would be far superior to having Hillary Clinton, or John Edwards, or Barack Obama, or Dennis Kucinich, or Mitt Romney, or Rudy Giuliani, or Fred Thompson take over the presidency and make an even bigger mess of it.
Of course this startling result is a reflection of America’s disapproval of Bush and its disconnection from Hillary, but it also should give pause to those who claim that Bush is finished. Isn’t it remarkable that, after seven long years of Bush administration, an experienced, first-ever female candidate from the opposite political party with money to burn and media attention that won’t quit cannot rank any better than the incumbent in the public mind? If a presidential contest between Bush and Mrs. Clinton were held at the time of these poll results, a third Bush victory would have been a distinct possibility. So a third factor in my belief that George Bush should be eligible to run for a third term is that, contrary to general perception, he actually would be a viable repeat candidate.
Finally, my last significant reason for advocating a third Bush run is to comfort the president and to give him a third chance. In recent years, I have become dismayed and disturbed to witness such a flood of vile, rude, offensive and obscene personal attacks unleashed against President Bush. It’s one thing to disagree with and even to firmly oppose various domestic and foreign policies of an administration; it’s another to throw hateful insults and pointless abuse. I cannot imagine what it must be like to be the most attacked, ridiculed, disparaged, and insulted president in American history, not just in America but around the world. Certainly President Bush has been responsible for numerous illegal actions that provide ample grounds for impeachment, as his critics declare. Yet I do not favor impeachment because President Bush has a good heart and he has accomplished the commendable things I mentioned at the beginning of this article. The next president may very well bring neither a good heart nor good actions. By proposing to allow George Bush another campaign, I am making a little statement that I am appalled at the deterioration of our public discourse; that I desire to retain a leader who is committed to the pro-life philosophy; and that I wish the president well.
Realistically, I do not expect the Twenty-Second Amendment to our Constitution to be repealed anytime soon. Nevertheless, it is interesting and healthy to ponder the hypothetical possibility of a third Bush term, just as it is instructive to discuss the merits and demerits of a term-limited presidency in general. I believe that in this chaotic and uncertain period of our nation’s history which began with the 9/11 attacks, the need for a chief executive office unrestrained by term limits is greater than when Alexander Hamilton espoused it at the dawn of our history. A term-unlimited presidency would be a better, more accountable, more responsive and more democratic institution for the United States.
Copyright © 2007 by Justin Soutar. All rights reserved.