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