The 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that no President can be elected to the position more than twice (U.S. Const. am. 22.). So an elected President is limited to two terms of four years each (“Two Term”). Though in the case of a Vice President, or other presidential successor, who takes on the responsibilities of a President who could not complete his term, this successor could be president for as long as a ten-year term, as long as he has not been President for longer than two years. Presidential term limits were unofficially started by George Washington, who rejected the opportunity to be President for a third term, by stating that two terms was enough for any one person.
This unofficial rule remained in place until 1940 with the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was elected to a third and fourth term, after steering the country through the Great Depression (“Two Term”). In 1947, after Roosevelt’s death, Congress passed the Twenty-second Amendment establishing presidential term limits. The Amendment was ratified by the states in 1951.
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History of term limits in politics
Although Washington has been recognized as the initiator of the principle, it has been suggested that his real reason for declining a third term was due primarily to age and not to concern for a prolonged tenure (Zimmerman). In fact, he was opposed to term limits and stated that there is no reason to preclude the services of a capable person. Thomas Jefferson addressed the term limit issue during his presidency (Reams). He said that if no limitation was created to legally terminate a presidency, it would be likely that the person would become president for life, a danger that should not be allowed. Following the ideas of early American political thought, James Madison and James Monroe limited their presidential time frame to two terms.
Madison, the fourth American president, was sworn into the office of the President in 1809 and left office in 1817 (“James Madison”). Monroe, the fifth U. S. president, was sworn into office in 1817 and left office eight years later in 1825 (“James Monroe”). The precedent was also adopted by our seventh president, Andrew Jackson, who became president in 1829, and left office in 1837 (“Andrew Jackson”). Many presidents from Jackson until Roosevelt tried to secure a third term but were unsuccessful.
The Great Depression, which began in 1929, and lasted ten years through 1939, was one of the most insidious economic collapses in the Western world (“The Great Depression”). On the heels of the October 1929 stock market crash, which sent Wall Street into a tizzy, investors nationwide lost their shirts. Consumers stopped spending, while investors stopped investing and the decline in the production of goods caused high levels of unemployment. At its lowest point, millions of Americans were unemployed and banks began to fail like the domino effect. President Roosevelt established numerous helpful reforms, yet the economy struggled until the advent of World War II when factories began production to strengthen the war effort (“The Great Depression”).
In search of political and economic stability, and with the onset of a world war, Roosevelt became the first president to sustain a third, and later a fourth presidential term (“Franklin D. Roosevelt”). After Roosevelt’s death in 1945, New York governor Thomas E. Dewey, who ran against Roosevelt and lost, supported the establishment of a two-term limit, stating that four terms is simply dangerous for American democracy (Cronin). This may have been true, but it may also have been sour grapes since he was blocked out of the opportunity to become president since Roosevelt successfully claimed his fourth term. Nevertheless, it may have simply been time to hard code the principle.
Term limits around the world
Most countries around the world have two term limits, although the length of time within the term is often a little longer. For example, France has two terms of 5 years each (Duhamel). There are also countries that have no term limits at all, like Japan, who has a Prime Minister, and Singapore (“Japan Country;” Farrar). The Governor-General in Australia and New Zealand also have no term limits, though the post is usually held for one five-year term (“Prime Minister;” Farrar). The Governor-General of Canada has an unlimited five-year term (“Length of Terms”) as does the Chancellor of Germany.
Term Limits: Generally
The purpose of term limits is to safeguard the public from enduring the service of officials who might remain in power indefinitely (“History and Debate”). This objective is accomplished by placing a restriction on the quantity of terms a person may be elected. The approach selected for a country’s term limits can take several forms. Among the variety of possible schemes are restrictions on consecutive terms, and lifetime limits.
The more restrictive form, a lifetime term, prevents an official from returning to office again. A consecutive term restriction, allows an official to be re-elected if there is a gap between service terms. The concept of term limits is not a new one. In fact, term limits were found to exist as early as the Roman Empire and Ancient Greece (“History and Debate”). In each instance, the public elected officials rather than hosting a royal family, or supporting a God led or deity led civil rule.
Legislative term limits
In addition to presidential term limits, some societies have congressional and other term limits, as well. In the United States, Vice Presidents do not have term limits, nor do Congressmen and Representatives (“Congressional Terms”). In fact, Robert Byrd, who was a Representative before he was a Senator, held the post of Senator from 1959 to 2010 and was the longest-serving Senator in the history of the United States at the time of his death. In 2013, Democratic Representative John Dingell became the longest-serving member of Congress, representing Michigan in the House of Representatives from 1955 to 2015. In Mexico, their president is limited to one six-year term, while their congressional officials are not allowed consecutive terms.
On the state level, term limitations vary across the United States. Some states have enforced policies and others have no policy (“Congressional Terms”). Countries that support parliamentary societies have a lesser involvement in term limits restrictions since they can be removed organically through the will of parliament, though in some instances time may be limited.
Term Limits: Pros and cons
Sticking with the original intentions of the Declaration of Independence, hose who support term limits believe that term limits provide society with diverse perspectives in government, and prevent consolidation of power in one person (“Congressional Terms”). Proponents believe that term limits ensure that the powers of public officials are in check. Term limits also restrict the power of lobbyist and political action committees from throwing their big purses at incumbents, preventing new blood from gaining political traction. Incumbents are also less likely to focus on special interests since they will be replaced within a limited period of time.
When officials gain seniority, they gain power and are less inclined to make changes, or listen to suggestions of junior members. Term limit supporters posit that political systems are more citizen-centric than having positions that are filled with career candidates. Corruption is less likely when there are term limits. It takes time to figure out how to exploit the system, and term limits help to reduce the opportunity to feel so comfortable that corruption can take hold (“Congressional Terms”).
Detractors of term limits suggest that they are capricious in nature and potentially stop the best person from remaining in service if they still have the qualities needed to remain in power (“Congressional Terms”). Opponents say that experienced public officials are valuable assets for society. Also, ongoing political transitions create a bog on projects and legislation. In times of crisis, having an experienced leader can be especially important for the survival of the economy, like in the case of FDR during the Great Depression.
Another argument advanced by the detractors is that in all positions there is a variable learning curve and that limiting terms is not the best use of time and analysis. Critics not only point to the loss of experience but focus on the loss of contacts and associations which help to get big projects accomplished. Finally, officials that are on their way out of office, often ignore their citizens since they have little to lose. (“Congressional Terms”).
Republican Mick Mulvaney’s proposed term limit amendment
On February 4, 2014, Republican Mick Mulvaney, Representative from South Carolina, sponsored a bill to amend the Constitution (Shabad). The focus of the bill was to impose term limits on congressmen. The term limits would require legislators to end their service after completion of a combined 24 years, 12 in the Senate and 12 in the House. The current congressional terms are different, in that legislators in the House face election every two years. Senators’ terms last longer, for a period of six years. Yet in both circumstances, there are no limitations to the number of terms a congressman can serve. During Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, he also promised term limits on congress.
If the lawmakers can survive elections, they can have unlimited consecutive terms. Mulvaney actually intended to create limits that were shorter than the 12 years on both sides of the Chamber (Shabad). But, in order to gain supporters, concession was required, so he agreed to a total of 24 years combined. The bill also came on the heels of opinion polls showing Congress disapproval levels at an all time high. A Gallup poll in January  found 13 percent of people approved of the job that Congress is doing. During the government shutdown in October , the approval rating stood at just 5 percent. (Shabad)
Mulvaney’s bill, HJ Res 108, was referred to the House of Representatives Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice for committee consideration. The last action on HJ Res 108 was March 20, 2014. Things do not look good for Mulvaney’s efforts. How do you get congressmen to vote themselves out of office when they spend so much time and effort trying to get in. It gives off the same sensation you might get if a police officer committed a crime and he was the lead detective investigating the case. The question becomes, what’s wrong with this picture (Shabad).
SCOTUS decision about term limits
In an attempt to address term limits, many states created laws to regulate the number of terms congressional representatives could serve. But in 1995, in U. S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, the case was visited by the U.S. Supreme Court (1995). The Justices held:
We are, however, firmly convinced that allowing the several States to adopt term limits for congressional service would effect a fundamental change in the constitutional framework. Any such change must come not by legislation adopted either by Congress or by an individual State, but rather–as have other important changes in the electoral process — through the Amendment procedures set forth in Article V.
The Framers decided that the qualifications for service in the Congress of the United States be fixed in the Constitution and be uniform throughout the Nation. That decision reflects the Framers’ understanding that members of Congress are chosen by separate constituencies, but that they become, when elected, servants of the people of the United States. (514 U.S. 779 (1995)
Term limits will only be accomplished in Congress if a powerful and influential leader is able to pressure other legislators to see the value in forcing lawmakers to get their business taken care of and then leave town. The only congressman with that much power is likely one who had the benefit of numerous unlimited terms.
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