Term Limits in U.S. Government Mark P. Petracca’s idea that “government should be kept as near to the people as possible chiefly through frequent elections and rotation-in-office” is quite common in early republican thought and generally agreed upon by the America’s revolutionary thinkers. Although the debate over limiting legislative terms dates back to the beginnings of political science, it was not until the 1990’s that the doctrine began to be taken seriously when voters started to approve term limit initiatives (Sinclair 203). Petracca’s statement captures a significant aspect of the democratic process- that every citizen retains the privilege to participate in the political system, yet his inclusion of “rotation-in-office” can both support and hinder such a privilege. This will be shown by discussing the views of America’s founders, term limits legislation in Washington State, California, and Oklahoma, political mobilization of national groups, and the opinions of congressmen concerning the matter.
Term limitation is not a strictly modern topic. Its roots date back to the creation of Republican thought and democratic theory of ancient Greece and Rome, and also aroused debates amongst the founding fathers of the United States (Sinclair 14). For the most part, the Antifederalists supported rotation-in-office because they feared its elimination, paired with the extensive powers given to Congress by the Constitution, would make the “federal rulers ..masters, not servants.” On the other hand, the Federalists felt that the separation of powers in the federalist system served as a viable check on ambition and tyrannical government; therefore, rotation seemed unnecessary and was not mentioned in the Constitution (Peek 97). Melancton Smith, of New York, is considered the Antifederalist’s most well-spoken and conscious supporter of rotation-in-office. In a speech given in June of 1788 which called for a constitutional amendment to solve the “evil” of the proposed Senate, Smith endorsed the point that rotation-in-office could be used as a check on the abuse of power and tyranny by proposing, rotation ..as the best possible mode of affecting a remedy.
The amendment will not only have the tendency to defeat any plots, which may be formed against liberty and the authority of the state governments, but will be the best means to extinguish the factions which often prevail, and which are sometimes fatal in legislative bodies (Foley 23).” New York’s “Brutus” also advocated rotation in the Senate, but he did so on grounds that more people would be given an opportunity to serve their government instead of a select few with lifetime membership. He felt that in addition to bringing a greater number of citizens forward to serve their country, it would force those who had served to return to their respective states and become more informed of the condition and politics of their constituencies (Foley 25). Both Smith and Brutus agreed that once an individual was elected to office his removal would be difficult, except in the rare occurrence that his outright misconduct would constitute grounds for dismissal. Sharing the Antifederalist doctrine of the dangers of permanent government, Brutus suggested that, “it would be wise to determine that a senator should not be eligible after he had served for the period assigned by the constitution for a certain number of years (Foley 26).” Although John Adams was a devout Federalist, he maintained that rotation, as well as frequent elections, would be necessary in order to keep government as near to the people as possible. Adams expressed these two beliefs in a speech given just before the American Revolution in which he proposed holding annual elections of representatives (Peek 101). He also compared men in a society with rotation-in-office to bubbles on the sea which “rise,..break, and to that sea return”; Adams later develops his thought by adding, “This will teach them the great political virtues of humility, patience, and moderation, without which every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey (Peek 102).” In response to the ideas of Melancton Smith, the strongest opposition from the Federalists came from Alexander Hamilton at the New York ratification convention.
Hamilton, along with Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston, developed three strong arguments against implementing term limits in government: the people have a right to judge who they will and will not elect to public office, rotation reduces the incentives for political accountability, and rotation deprives society of experienced public servants (Foley 28). In general, the goals of all founders, despite their political affiliation, aimed at preserving a close connection between representatives and their constituencies. While the Antifederalists believed that imposing term limits would create enhanced participation in government, a check on tyrannical leaders, and greater representation of the people, the Federalists theorized that the same goals could be accomplished by the president serving a short term and having congressman follow his actions (Foley 34). Following the adoption of term limits in Colorado, California, and Oklahoma in 1990, Washington State became the site of intensely fought campaigning during 1991. A group calling itself LIMIT (Legislative Initiative Mandating Incumbent Terms) drafted an initiative called I-553 in the winter of 1990-1991.
At the time I-553 was considered the most prohibitive term-limitation proposal of the 1990’s because it limited legislatures to ten consecutive years in the state legislature, with senators having two four-year terms and representatives having three two-year terms. Senators and representatives of the United States Congress would also be limited to twelve consecutive years, two six-year terms and three two-year terms, respectively. Most alarming to congressmen with greater tenure in office, the initiative would take effect immediately and would be retroactive, if passed (Cannon A4). Another initiative, I-522, proposed eight year limits on state legislators and twelve years for congressmen, and would have also placed restrictions on campaign contribution, to which state party organization chairs quickly announced their opposition. Due to the extreme animosity displayed toward I-522, its backers withdrew their support and joined forces with LIMIT.
Following the I-553 proposal, LIMIT hastened to collect well over two-hundred thousand signatures of support and the campaign for passage began. Despite overwhelming endorsement by the general public, the I-553 failed to pass on November 6, 1991 by a fifty-four to forty-six percent margin. This sudden turnaround was credited to then Speaker of the House Tom Foley, who would have been affected by the initiative and thus, addressed the issue with conviction and passion just days before the scheduled vote (Cannon A5). On the ballot before California citizens in 1990 there were two distinct term-limitation proposals- Proposition 131 and Proposition 140. Under Proposition 131, drafted by Democrat John Van de Kamp, office holders identified in the state constitution would be restricted to two consecutive four-year terms, and elected officials who had served their full term could sit out one term and be eligible for the next (Benjamin 120).
Proposition 140, authored by conservative Republican Pete Schabarum, was targeted at “career politicians” and contained far stricter term limit features than Proposition 131. State assembly members were limited to three two-year terms, and given a lifetime ban once their service was completed (Benjamin 121). Advocates of Proposition 140 spent much of their campaign attacking “career politicians” and their corruptive nature. On Election Day, Proposition 140 was narrowly passed over Proposition 131 because it offered term limits at no cost, while Proposition 131 allowed taxpayer funding to directly funnel into politicians’ campaigns (Benjamin 122). Recently, a federal appeals court struck down Proposition 140 allowing the issue to ascend to the United States Supreme Court. A panel of three judges voted two to one in opposition to the term limits legislation on October 7, 1997, declaring that the law’s language did not properly convey the message that it carried a lifetime ban for lawmakers seeking the same office (Frost 1). Using his considerable resources, Lloyd Noble II, a member of a wealthy Oklahoma family known for its civic contributions, commissioned a survey of Oklahoma voter attitude toward the concept of term limitation. Upon discovering the staggering results in favor of the idea, he began devising a campaign strategy in an attempt to implement twelve-year term limits on state legislators (Benjamin 140).
State Question 632, as the proposal was called, prompted little campaigning by its proponents and even less opposition by its opponents (Benjamin 141). The only group to emerge in protest of State Question 632 was PROVE (The Committee to Protect the Rights of Oklahoma Voters), but their effort …