Term Limits: Learning from the Confederates

One of my main talking points in the area of politics (and anyone even remotely acquainted with me knows that these are few and far between) is the issue of term limits. I have long been a supporter of them—at all levels of government. One of the brilliant moves taken by the writers of the Confederate Constitution of 1861 was to limit the President’s term to six years, with no chance of re-election (Article 2, Section 1). This assured that new executive leadership would be had every six years. Unfortunately, even the Confederate Constitution didn’t limit Congressional terms.

In his usual fashion, Thomas Sowell writes common sense about terms limits in his recent article, “A Real Term Limit.” Although he’s a supporter of limits, Sowell makes the obvious point that term limits by themselves won’t really do what they are intended to do, i.e., making career politicians extinct. He writes:

When someone reaches the limit of how long one can spend as a county supervisor, then it is just a question of finding another political office to run for, such as a member of the state legislature. And when the limit on terms there is reached, it is time to look around for another political job — perhaps as a mayor or a member of Congress.

In other words, term limits will not prevent an individual from making politics a career, only from making any particular office a long-term destination. Real term limits, says Sowell, need to be “limited to one term, with a long interval prescribed before the same person can hold any government office again.”

The argument is often made by those against term limits that government offices with revolving doors lead to amateur governance, rather than experienced governance. Sowell responds:

As for the loss of experience and expertise if there were no career politicians, much — if not most — of that is experience and expertise in the arts of evasion, effrontery, deceit and chicanery. None of that serves the interest of the people.

Hear! Hear! I am not quite so cynical to believe that most people get involved in politics for the power and prestige. To be sure, there are some, but I do believe (naively perhaps) that most get involved initially because they truly believe they have something to offer. Or as Sowell puts it: “they came to go good and stayed to do well.” Part-time work tends to receive a part-time investment from the worker, and politics is certainly no different in this regard. Knowing that you will be out of your office in a certain amount of time will manifest itself in one of two ways: the office-holder will do next to nothing or else he will try to do everything he possibly can. Either way the electorate is served; in the first way, government remains stagnant, in the second, voters know that the expansion of government is restrained by time—until the next election.

The primary way that the electorate is not served though, is through endless re-elections and non-term-limited career politicians. If all government office-holders knew that their time was short, we would see far less partisan wrangling and closed-door deal making. If an individual knew that his political “career” carried an official expiration date, he would less inclined to make political decisions based solely on his own self-preservation. If nothing else, it would certainly be worth trying in deference to what has already been tried. The Confederate constitutional convention was able to learn from more than 70 years of experience under the U.S. Constitution in the drafting of its own, and now we have the benefit of more than 220 years. Term limits on the President is good, but it is not enough. We need term limits across the board.