Who Limits the Limiters?
In an election year in which statements on actual policy haven’t spent much time in the headlines, not much was made of Donald Trump’s call for Congressional term limits. The Republican nominee promised to “drain the swamp” by pushing to limit members of the House and Senate to three and two terms, respectively. Somewhat surprisingly, Trump managed to swerve into an attempt to address an actual problem, even if his solution is incorrect.
To his credit, he did say that he would push for a Constitutional Amendment to limit Congressional terms. It’s likely he may not understand the difficulty of actually amending the Constitution, but at least in this instance, he managed to prescribe the actual medicine necessary to cure the illness instead of just promising to wildly lop off limbs with a dull hacksaw. But however Constitutional the idea is, it faces an uphill battle; in fact, it probably wouldn’t pass, which is good, because it shouldn’t pass.
The Founders, in their wisdom, built into our system of government a ready-made mechanism by which Congressional terms are limited. We call them elections. It is true that there are far too many career politicians in Washington D.C., men and women entrenched in safe seats for decades upon decades. But as unpopular as it may be to say so, that’s the fault of the voters.
The Founders knew men to be ignorant, vain, venal creatures. That’s the reason our elections are so frequent. It bears mentioning that the Presidency wasn’t limited to two terms originally; that was a tradition in deference to George Washington. The 22nd Amendment wasn’t passed until Congress realized that if FDR hadn’t died, he never would’ve rolled out of town on his own. Even then the Republican-controlled Congress passed the amendment in 1947, but the states didn’t ratify it for four years, after a war hero Republican President had been elected. That it took four years to ratify should be a warning to us about the vicissitudes of political parties and the fickleness of the public mood. That’s why the Constitution is so difficult to amend in the first place.
How does this apply to Trump’s call for a term-limits amendment? First off, a whole lot of people favor the idea. But the axiom that “Congress” is always more unpopular than “my Congressman” is an axiom for a reason, and it’s hard to imagine many career politicians in the House and Senate voting for a proposed amendment instead of just voting it down and taking their chances at the ballot box the next time they’re up for reelection. A convention of the states could propose it, and you might be able to reach that ⅔ benchmark, but ratification requires ¾ of the states. Given the current contentious political climate that seems all but impossible, and it certainly won’t be possible with a President Trump (or Clinton, for that matter).
This difficulty is, of course, part of the system’s design. The reason there have only been 27 amendments (and one of those canceling out a previous one), why the Founders made them so difficult to pass, is that they knew how easily swayed by demagoguery, flattery, and anger most men tend to be. They recognized that many bad decisions are made when passions run hot, and the difficulty of the amendment process protects citizens from themselves. But they also believed that, ultimately, a citizenry’s best defense against bad governance was their ability to choose their own lawmakers, and to do so freely, wisely, and often.
Circling back to where Trump is correct: there is a swamp in D.C. that needs draining, but it isn’t Congress. There are only 535 of them, and we have plenty of chances to replace them. The real government swamp is in the 15 Executive Cabinet departments and all of their ancillaries. These are the people most actively involved in governing us, with Congress being mainly guilty of continually funding them. They’re the true source of the IRS scandal, Common Core, the War on Drugs, etc., etc., etc. The swamp isn’t in the halls of Congress; it’s in the Lyndon Baines Johnson building, the Frances Perkins Building, the James V. Forrestal Building. Maybe it’s time we considered term limiting all of them.
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