Term Limits in U.S. Government



Mark P. Petracca's idea that "government should be kept as

near to the people as possible chiefly through frequent elections and

rotation-in-office" is quite common in early republican thought and

generally agreed upon by the America's revolutionary thinkers.

Although the debate over limiting legislative terms dates back to the

beginnings of political science, it was not until the 1990's that the

doctrine began to be taken seriously when voters started to approve

term limit initiatives (Sinclair 203). Petracca's statement captures

a significant aspect of the democratic process- that every citizen

retains the privilege to participate in the political system, yet his

inclusion of "rotation-in-office" can both support and hinder such a

privilege. This will be shown by discussing the views of America's

founders, term limits legislation in Washington State, California, and

Oklahoma, political mobilization of national groups, and the opinions

of congressmen concerning the matter.

Term limitation is not a strictly modern topic. Its roots

date back to the creation of Republican thought and democratic theory

of ancient Greece and Rome, and also aroused debates amongst the

founding fathers of the United States (Sinclair 14). For the most

part, the Antifederalists supported rotation-in-office because they

feared its elimination, paired with the extensive powers given to

Congress by the Constitution, would make the "federal rulers

...masters, not servants." On the other hand, the Federalists felt

that the separation of powers in the federalist system served as a

viable check on ambition and tyrannical government; therefore,

rotation seemed unnecessary and was not mentioned in the Constitution

(Peek 97).

Melancton Smith, of New York, is considered the

Antifederalist's most well-spoken and conscious supporter of

rotation-in-office. In a speech given in June of 1788 which called

for a constitutional amendment to solve the "evil" of the proposed

Senate, Smith endorsed the point that rotation-in-office could be used

as a check on the abuse of power and tyranny by proposing, rotation

...as the best possible mode of affecting a remedy. The amendment

will not only have the tendency to defeat any plots, which may be

formed against liberty and the authority of the state governments, but

will be the best means to extinguish the factions which often prevail,

and which are sometimes fatal in legislative bodies (Foley 23)." New

York's "Brutus" also advocated rotation in the Senate, but he did so

on grounds that more people would be given an opportunity to serve

their government instead of a select few with lifetime membership. He

felt that in addition to bringing a greater number of citizens forward

to serve their country, it would force those who had served to return

to their respective states and become more informed of the condition

and politics of their constituencies (Foley 25). Both Smith and Brutus

agreed that once an individual was elected to office his removal would

be difficult, except in the rare occurrence that his outright

misconduct would constitute grounds for dismissal. Sharing the

Antifederalist doctrine of the dangers of permanent government, Brutus

suggested that, "it would be wise to determine that a senator should

not be eligible after he had served for the period assigned by the

constitution for a certain number of years (Foley 26)."

Although John Adams was a devout Federalist, he maintained

that rotation, as well as frequent elections, would be necessary in

order to keep government as near to the people as possible. Adams

expressed these two beliefs in a speech given just before the American

Revolution in which he proposed holding annual elections of

representatives (Peek 101). He also compared men in a society with

rotation-in-office to bubbles on the sea which "rise,...break, and to

that sea return"; Adams later develops his thought by adding, "This

will teach them the great political virtues of humility, patience, and

moderation, without which every man in power becomes a ravenous beast

of prey (Peek 102)." In response to the ideas of Melancton Smith, the

strongest opposition from the Federalists came from Alexander Hamilton

at the New York ratification convention. Hamilton, along with Roger

Sherman and Robert Livingston, developed three strong arguments

against implementing term limits in government: the people have a

right to judge who they will and will not elect to public office,

rotation reduces the incentives for political accountability, and

rotation deprives society of experienced public servants (Foley 28).

In general, the goals of all founders, despite their political

affiliation, aimed at preserving a close connection