US politicians’ term limits

By March 17, 2017US Politics

Back in 1787, the Constitutional Convention1 extensively discussed the limitation on the number of terms a president could serve, but decided not to implement any limitation in the formulation of the constitution2.

George Washington was elected as the first President of the United States in 1789 and served two 4 year terms, being re-elected in 1792. Had he decided to run for a third term, he probably would have been elected, but he retired at the age of 64 in 1796. He stated, in his farewell address, that his decision not to stand was because of his age, rather than the desire to set a precedent. However, a two term maximum did become a convention, with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and Andrew Jackson only serving two terms each. Despite this convention, several Presidents did seek to serve a third term and included Ulysses Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, but only the last succeeded, winning four consecutive presidential elections in 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944. He died in office in April, 1945, a little under three months after his inauguration3.

The politician Roosevelt defeated in the 1944 election, Thomas Dewey, supported an amendment to the constitution that would limit future presidents to two terms. The Republican-controlled Congress approved a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the constitution. This amendment was finally ratified in February, 1951, almost four years after being sent to the states for ratification2.

The amendment states in part that ‘no person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice’2.

Thomas Dewey had stated, in support of the joint declaration that “four terms or sixteen years, is the most dangerous threat to our freedom ever proposed”2. And yet, there is no limit on Representatives or Senators serving enormously long terms, with the current record being held by former representative John Dingell, who spent just over 59 years in the House. He was elected to the House of Representatives to replace his father, who had died in office. At the time of his election in December, 1955, he was 29 years of age and upon his retirement in January, 2015, he was 88. He served in the army during the last year of the war, and after the capitulation of Japan, he attended Georgetown University, obtaining a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and a Doctor of Jurisprudence. He spent the next three years as a private practice lawyer.

While I have little idea how useful or how active Dingell was in the House of Representatives, apart from his membership and chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee4; following your father into the same seat reeks of the son taking over the family business from his father, as some sort of dynastic bequest. I also doubt that a young man of 29 would have the experience or the knowledge to understand much about the world, especially coming from the relatively wealthy community of lawyers.

A long career in office also leads to an increasing risk of compromise, and Dingell was accused of stalling certain environmental legislation that would have tightened vehicle emissions standards, something that could be argued would be detrimental to the ‘big three’ car manufacturers (General Motors, Ford & Chrysler) that were a major source of employment in Dingell’s district4. Indeed, Dingell has been criticised for his close ties to the car industry. The three largest contributors (either directly or indirectly) to his 2006 election campaign were General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. Over the period from 1989 to 2006, they contributed more than $600,000 to his campaign finances. Dingell also held what is believed to be over $1 million in General Motors stock options. His wife worked as a lobbyist for General Motors until they married, when she moved to an administrative position with the corporation4.

Dingell is not being singled out, other than as an example of some of the problems caused by early entry into and long tenure in Congress. He had stock options in, and had obtained campaign funds from car manufacturers while at the same time sitting on a committee which had legislative oversight of air quality and environmental health, both of which relate to car emissions standards5. That is a clear conflict of interests and should not be allowed to happen.

The Ethics in Government Act of 1978 was passed by congress in the wake of the Watergate scandal, in the vain hope that it would prevent such unconscionable behaviour in future. However, all it did was to make mandatory the disclosure of the financial history of public officials and their immediate family, and restricted their employment as lobbyists for a set period after leaving office. It also created the US Office of Independent Counsel, a body tasked with investigating government officials. Many have complained that this is an invasion of privacy, and also argue that it deters ‘good people’ from entering politics because of the excessive levels of disclosure6. However, it seems to do nothing to deter the rampant conflict of interest demonstrated by John Dingell. If the US Congress was serious about dealing with conflict of interest, it would do more than flog people with this legislative wet lettuce leaf. They will not, simply because there is an inherent conflict of interest in politicians regulating their own behaviour.

Members of Congress belonging to both parties have substantial holdings in companies their legislative actions affect and this number has grown substantially in recent years. In 2001, 20% of members owned stock, whereas that had more than doubled by 2013, with more than half the members now owning stock, some with holdings over $100,000. Over half of the members of Congress are millionaires7. There are numerous examples of such conflicts of interest, some of them rather more dubious than that of Dingell.

Like the restrictions on presidential terms, members of Congress should be limited to perhaps twelve years (i.e. two Senate terms). In the House of Representatives, the length of a current term is two years. This is ridiculously short and it probably should be lengthened to 4 years (i.e. midterm to midterm), with representatives being limited to a maximum of three terms (i.e. 12 years).

Upon election to office, all members of Congress should be forced to liquidate all their financial interests except the family home, with those monies invested in US government bonds and the interest paid into a trust accessible only when they leave office. Only then, with a bit of luck, will national interest come close to trumping self-interest. The term career politician must become an oxymoron.


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