GETTING PAST THE RHETORIC
By Steven R. Carroll
Now that the Supreme Court has ruled in U.S. Term
Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, Nos. 93-1456 and 93-1428, that
congressional term limits (as passed by individual
states) is unconstitutional, it appears James Madison,
father of our Constitution, was right. In his Federalist
Paper No. 53, written over 200 years ago, he explained
why the Constitutional Convention of 1787 rejected
term limits. He stated:
"a few of the members of Congress will possess
superior talents; will by frequent re-elections, become members of long standing; will be thoroughly masters of the public business, and perhaps
not unwilling to avail themselves of those advantages. The greater the proportion of new members
of Congress, and the less the information of the
bulk of the members, the more apt they be to fall
into the snares that may be laid before them."
Our old Constitution, the Articles of Confederation,
restricted congressional service to three consecutive
terms in any six-year period. However, members of the
Continental Congress were appointed by their respective state legislatures and the people had no vote. Many
felt this restriction harmful.
During the ratification debates on the New Constitution, some stated that mandatory rotation of elected
officials (modern day term limits) should continue.
Supporters of this idea had little success as it was rejected in every state convention. One Constitutional
Convention delegate, Robert Livingston, had this to say
about mandatory rotation:
"the people are the best judges who ought to represent them. To dictate and control them, to tell them
whom they should not elect, is to abridge their
natural rights. This rotation is an absurd species of
ostracism." 2 Elliot's Debates 292-293.
In Federalist Paper No. 60, John Hamilton added:
"the qualifications of the persons who may choose
or be chosen, as has been remarked upon other
occasions, are defined and fixed in the Constitution, and are unalterable by the legislature."
This clearly implies that members of Congress derive their power, not from their respective states, but
from the U.S. Constitution and thus individual states
cannot change qualifications for members of Congress
unless amending the U.S. Constitution. As Justice Stevens stated in delivering the opinion of the Court in U.S.
Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton:
"states have no authority to change, add to, or diminish the requirements for congressional service.
Permitting individual states to formulate diverse
qualifications for their congressional representatives would result in a patchwork that would be
inconsistent with the framers vision of a uniform
National Legislature representing the people of the
United States." 63 LW 4413, 2.
Supporters of term limits say there is too much
political careerism. Political careerism is not new or a
modern day problem. Six of the most brilliant political
figures in the first 50 years of our country; James Madison, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams,
John Calhoun and Stephen A. Douglas served a combined 140 years in Congress. They were professional
politicians, the very type of servants that some want to
limit today. As George Will once remarked, before he
changed his position on term limits, "all great careers
are long." It is true term limits would bring in new faces
in Congress but that may not result in new talent of
fresh ideas and would certainly stop great careers.
Much of America's greatest legislative achievements (Social Security, Medicare, Civil Rights, Rural
Electrification, etc.) came from members of Congress
who were in their latter years of seniority. It's true, term
limits will get rid of some bad apples in Congress, but
they will force out of office some good apples, and long
before they ripen into great ones.
Contrary to the rhetoric, change is actually occurring at a high rate. Between 1980 and 1988 there was a 56
Steven R. Carroll is Director of Public Affairs for Dorf & Stanton
Communications, Inc. and is a former member of the Missouri House
July 1995 / Illinois Municipal Review / Page 25
percent turnover rate in the House and a 44 percent
turnover rate in the Senate. Since 1980 both parties have
had control of the House and Senate. The election of
1994 had a tremendous turnover ratio with 96 new
members being elected to Congresss.
Those who favor term limits say that by kicking the
incumbent out, and by keeping that person from running for re-election again, you will give the voters more
choices. This argument would appear somewhat hypocritical, because you are keeping voters from having
more choice, the veteran who has been successful in
other elections and has represented voters' views fairly
well. Should the incumbent politician be regarded as a
second class citizen? Allowing injustice to one individual is a threat to justice for all individuals.
It may be true that term limits enjoy a 65 to 70
percent support ratio around the country at the present
time. But then again, at one time in our history,
McCarthyism, the Vietnam War and public hangings
enjoyed the same support.
Those who do not favor term limits say you need
experience and seniority in Congress to do a better job.
They argue that by ridding Congress of experienced
legislators you give more power to congressional staff,
bureaucrats and even lobbyists. But this logic has weaknesses, too. How many jobs are there, where it takes
eight, 10,12 years, to learn how to do it? Most corporations would call that incompetency if their employee
took 12 years to learn the trade. It could be further
argued that staff and bureaucrats do most of the leg
work in government anyway and that the politicians
take all the credit. Who said freshman legislators can't
make a difference? When Missouri's own Jerry Litton
was elected to Congress in 1972 at the age of 35, the
veteran House Speaker Tip O'Neill, stated he hadn't
seen a freshman member of Congress as impressive as
Jerry Litton in all his years in Congress. Litton went on
to accomplish great things in his four short years in
Congress before his death.
Regardless of how you stand on this issue, it should
be noted that the Supreme Court's decision in U.S.
Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton did not argue the pros
and cons of term limits, but did address how term limits
could not be imposed by individual states. Term limits
can be enacted in one way, by amending our Constitution through Article V. The decision did not disqualify
term limits for state legislative officials. Many states,
including Missouri, will continue to have term limits for
their own local and state officials.
With the Court's decision, term limits is certainly not
a dead issue, but it is a more defined one. The framers
of our Constitution made it clear there can be only one
supreme government, one nation and one people. It
would be wrong to allow individual states to design
their own congressional qualifications as it would chip
away at our symbol of unity. So while we may be
residents of our individual states we are above all,
Americans, with a love of motherhood, apple pie and
baseball (when not on strike). The founders of our
country were truly searching for a "more perfect union"
and the decision (U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton)
reflects that they found it. •
Page 26 / Illinois Municipal Review / July 1995