Voters shouldn’t have to fix what isn’t broke
In last week’s column I discussed whether age limits are appropriate for federal officials: the President, members of Congress, and judges. This week it’s term limits: should the nation change its current laws governing the length of terms for those officials?
The short answer is “yes,” but you’ll have to wait to the end of the column for the suggested change.
I don’t favor term limits for any federal elected official.
The reason is similar to last week’s column’s position on age limits: in a democracy, the voters should not be prevented from choosing whom they want to represent them, regardless of how long an elected official has already served. (Age limits for appointed officials pose a different question.)
Obviously there is no current term limit for members of Congress. Iowa’s own Senator Chuck Grassley is on his eighth U.S. Senate term. He’s the longest serving Republican in U.S. Senate history.
When his current term ends, Grassley will have served 48 years in the Senate, preceded by three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. That will be a total of 54 years in Congress. (Before that he also served eight terms, a total of 16 years, in the Iowa House of Representatives.)
It isn’t as though all of Grassley’s Democratic opponents have been cream puffs. Some had long records of creditable public service. But the voters so far have stated their preference for another Grassley term each time. I don’t think they should be deprived of choosing a U.S. Senator by an arbitrary limit on the number of terms an incumbent candidate has already served.
Federal judges, of course, are not elected and they serve for life if they wish. The question of term limits doesn’t apply in their case, although age limits should, as I discussed last week.
That leaves the President.
George Washington, nearing the end of his second four-year term as the nation’s first President, was fighting ill health and had grown tired of his political opponents’ attacks on his policies. He also thought he had accomplished his prime goals in the office. Consequently, he announced that he would not seek a third term.
Thomas Jefferson, the third President, made the same decision midway into his second term. (John Adams, the second President, was not reelected to a second term.) The two-term tradition, thus established, became a hallmark of American politics and government, and remained so for 150 years.
Then in 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt, with the Second World War well underway in Europe and the Pacific, announced at the 1940 Democratic national convention that he would run for a third term only if drafted, and that convention delegates could vote for whomever they pleased.
They pleased to vote for Roosevelt, and he was nominated on the first ballot. The third-term question dominated the 1940 election. Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie charged that more than two terms for a President “. . . is the most dangerous threat to our freedom ever proposed.”
The American voters disagreed. Roosevelt soundly defeated Willkie, and then went on to beat Republican Thomas E. Dewey in 1944 to win yet a fourth term.
But the issue remained hot in American politics, and when Republicans gained control of Congress after World War Two, they promptly set about drafting a constitutional amendment to limit a President to two four-year terms.
The House and Senate initially adopted different forms of the amendment, but on March 21, 1947, the House agreed to the Senate’s version and the resolution was approved in Congress. It then was sent to the states, requiring approval by three-fourths of the state legislatures for ratification.
Iowa wasted no time. On April 1, just 11 days after the congressional action, the Iowa Legislature voted “yes.” Only Maine and Michigan beat Iowa to the punch. When Minnesota approved the measure nearly four years later, on Feb. 27, 1951, the amendment---the 22nd---became part of the U.S. Constitution.
Through the years, a few former or sitting Presidents, in addition to FDR, have toyed with the idea of seeking a third term. Those include Donald Trump, who at a White House event in April 2019 suggested he would remain President for 10 to 14 years.
What Trump proposed has been unconstitutional since 1951 because of the 22nd Amendment. But I find fault with that restriction. If an incumbent or former President wishes to seek reelection, in my opinion he or she should be able to campaign like anyone else.
In a democracy it should not make any difference how long a candidate has held an office. If the voters favor his or her reelection, they should not be deprived of that choice. They could always elect the opponent if they wish.
To channel a Southern saying, if the voters think an administration ain’t broke, they shouldn’t have to fix it.