Many conservatives are calling for the institution of term limits for elected officials as a way to curb corruption and provide better control over Congress. Dan Greenberg from heritage.org, states:
“Term limits are a vital political reform that would bring new perspectives to Congress, mandate frequent legislative turnover, and diminish incentives for wasteful election-related federal spending that currently flourish in a careerist congressional culture.”
However, before we accept Mr. Greenberg’s position, we should ask whether instituting term limits is the best solution to the problems he lists. I want to focus most of this article on term limits as they relate to the election of senators, since I believe we have detrimentally strayed from the Constitution and the intent of our founding fathers in this area. Whereas the election of senators has significantly changed since the Constitution was originally written, the election of representatives has remained substantially the same (a couple changes being congressional districting and reapportionment decisions, but these would be topics for another post!).
Our Constitution originally purposed that senators would be chosen by the state legislatures – not elected by the people, as is done today. Additionally, the state legislatures had the right to recall senators who weren’t faithfully executing their duties. We will be discussing this in more detail in one of our upcoming Constitution posts, but for now, let’s go ahead and read the text of Article 1 Section 3 of our Constitution below:
“The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, [chosen by the Legislature thereof,] for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.
Immediately after they shall be assembled in Consequence of the first Election, they shall be divided as equally as may be into three Classes. The Seats of the Senators of the first Class shall be vacated at the Expiration of the second Year, of the second Class at the Expiration of the fourth Year, and of the third Class at the Expiration of the sixth Year, so that one-third may be chosen every second Year; [and if Vacancies happen by Resignation, or otherwise, during the Recess of the Legislature of any State, the Executive thereof may make temporary Appointments until the next Meeting of the Legislature, which shall then fill such Vacancies.]
No Person shall be a Senator who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty Years, and been nine Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen.
The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.
The Senate shall choose their other Officers, and also a President pro tempore, in the Absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the Office of President of the United States.
The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two-thirds of the Members present.
Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.”
The way senators were to be chosen changed in 1913 under the 17th amendment to the system we use today. The 17th amendment reads:
“The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each state shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislatures.
When vacancies happen in the representation of any state in the Senate, the executive authority of such state shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, that the legislature of any state may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.
This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.”
Now you see that, whereas before, senators were chosen by the state legislatures, now, they are elected by the people, and we no longer have automatic recall. Unfortunately, it’s the 17th amendment that is largely to blame for the problems Mr. Greenberg stated above. Constitutional Attorney KrisAnne Hall states that without recall, senators are more easily swayed by special interest groups and don’t care for their state as they should, and the people are more likely to become complacent.
In an effort to repeal the 17th amendment in 2004, Georgia Senator Zell Miller stated,
“The 17th amendment was the death of the careful balance between State and Federal Government. As designed by that brilliant and very practical group of Founding Fathers, the two governments would be in competition with each other and neither could abuse or threaten the other. The election of Senators by the State legislatures was the lynchpin that guaranteed the interests of the States would be protected.”
Our founders gave us the tools we need to protect our God-given liberties. It’s our fault that we’ve failed to use them!! John Adams said, “If we are to have a free Republican Government we must have an attachment to the Constitution and a conscientious determination to support it.”
The solution to many of the problems we face today is not additional legislation, but a return to the wisdom displayed by our founding fathers and laid out in the Constitution. It is necessary that our elected officials be subject to the desires of those they are elected to serve. With regard to our senators, perhaps the problem would be better solved not by instituting term limits but by repealing the 17th amendment and returning to the original intent of our founding fathers and our Constitution.
Although I chose to mainly address term limits as they apply to senators, I want to briefly point out that I believe this same principle applies to ALL elected officials. To summarize, the principal is this: what we need isn’t more more regulations, but more vigilance of the people. Once again, KrisAnne Hall stated:
“The principle against term limits is the same no matter where you apply it. First, term limits are anti-liberty. They remove the choice of the people and the power of the people to KEEP good people in office. What if we actually have a real modern Jefferson? Term limits say we cannot keep him even if we want him. Second, having term limits doesn’t fix the problem, it enables the problem. The problem is not corrupt politicians. The problem is inattentive constituents. Term limits encourages the people to be inattentive because they do not have to do anything to get rid of a bad politician, they can just wait them out. Politicians can also benefit from term limits enormously. Politicians KNOW the people will be less attentive and they can do whatever they want for the term they have. That’s how special interests take over government…while the people sleep and [corrupt politicians benefit].”
The answer is clear: we the people must be diligent to act if we desire that our elected officials be held accountable and if we would preserve the liberty that our founders won for us.
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