I am vehemently opposed to mandatory term limits, especially at the state and local level, and find great weakness in the argument made for them by their advocates. Mandatory term limits were first considered by our Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and rejected by its delegates. They didn’t make sense then and they don’t make sense now. What does make sense, and was chosen over mandatory term limits by our Founding Fathers, is short terms, or in other words, frequent elections. James Madison, who was one of the Constitutional Convention’s delegates who opposed mandatory term limits recorded in his notes the words of another delegate, Roger Sherman, who also opposed them: “Frequent elections are necessary to preserve the good behavior of rulers. They also tend to give permanency to the Government, by preserving that good behavior, because it ensures their re-election.” This argument makes sense. The argument for mandatory term limits doesn’t.
Given mandatory term limits, a politician ineligible to run for re-election would be stripped of his incentive to please his constituency and would become easy prey for special interests. Our Founding Fathers not only recognized the need for frequent elections to keep politicians responsive, they recognized as well that this was most important at the level of government closest to the people – the House of Representatives. It stands to reason, therefore, that this is what is needed at the state and local level as well. Our Founding Fathers knew that the best way to restrain a politician would be to periodically put his performance on trial by the electorate. What better way to keep politicians loyal to their constituency? What need have we for mandatory term limits? What more could they do for our system of government than the frequent elections instituted by our Founding Fathers? This system has kept in office for as many terms as was deemed appropriate by the people of the United States, according to their performance in office, the likes of John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, Sam Houston, James Madison and Daniel Webster.
I don’t believe “new blood” is needed at all in elected office for good policy to coagulate. In fact, I strongly agree with the argument that bleeding edge policy comes from steady- handed politicians who, in seeking and gaining re-election through their responsiveness to their constituents, have the pulse of the people on jugular issues. Like surgeons, these politicians have honed the skills needed to succeed at their job and are chosen based on their track record in successfully operating within the government. And if “new blood” is needed, mandatory term limits aren’t. “New blood” has successfully gained access to office without mandatory term limits. In 1992, Congress had 124 freshmen. Their predecessors were not ousted by mandatory term limits, but by the voice of the people. Call it ballot box term limits. The electorate should decide. Mandatory term limits cannot guarantee better policy. Only a well-informed electorate can do that.
If the people of the United States are concerned about being poorly represented in government, mandatory term limits are not the answer. The answer is voter education. Whether it be a change of policy or a change of guard, the people should maintain and exercise their constitutional right to elect the representatives who will serve them, and these representatives must remain accountable to the electorate and answer only to them, not to special interests. The only term limits needed to successfully accomplish this system of government are ballot box term limits. “New blood” is no guarantee of better representation. On the contrary, the only thing “new blood” guarantees is that old-guard staffers who have never had to face voters are in control of the government and shaping policy while the “new blood” learns the ropes.