A heartfelt “thank you” to the distinguished Senator from Fox News Talking Points for making at once the shortest and indisputably best argument for amending the Constitution’s Article I, Section 2, —and amending or repealing its 22nd Amendment, and tweaking the 20th and 25th, if desired—to award each elected President a single, six-year term. (Whether we would allow them back to serve again, non-consecutively, is negotiable. Think Bill Clinton—and Obama’s young and reasonably healthy, if Michelle ever prevails upon him to stop smoking.)
Specifying length of terms is an ancient practice, but limiting their number is only 65 years old. Rotation into and out of office were features of governance in both ancient Greece and Rome, and our founders—being educated in the classics, because the Masters’ in Business Administration was unavailable to them—were well-acquainted with the concept. Ben Franklin applied it to the “executive committee” he wrote into Pennsylvania’s pre-independence Constitution. Six weak executives were appointed to serve as “President of the Congress” before the Articles of Confederation were ratified, and another 10 individuals were appointed “chief executive” to one-year terms by the Continental Congress under the Articles. Congressional members of that era were themselves limited to serving not more than three in any given six years. (That was the last time that happened—although Jacksonian Democrats got creative and essentially volunteered to rotate in and out of the Congress to spread the patronage around among loyalists.)
In the Beginning
When they convened in Philadelphia in 1787, our forebears were confronted with the reality that, among the states, being “President of the United States in Congress Assembled” and chair of their in absentia executive committee was perceived as being slightly less prestigious than emptying chamber pots. Federalist Papers co-author and well-known elitist Alexander Hamilton was a strong proponent of no limitation on presidential terms, while the Virginians tended to err on the side of shorter and more limited service. Here’s how Story summarized their deliberations on the issue:
It was at one time proposed, that the executive should be chosen during good behaviour. But this proposition received little favour, and seems to have been abandoned without much effort…Another proposition was to choose the executive for seven years, which at first passed by a bare majority; but being coupled with a clause, “to be chosen by the national legislature,” it was approved by the vote of eight states against two. A nother clause, “to be ineligible a second time,” was added by the vote of eight states against one, one being divided. In this form the clause stood in the first draft of the constitution, though some intermediate efforts were made to vary it. But it was ultimately altered upon the report of a committee so, as to change the mode of election, the term of office, and the re-eligibility, to their present form, by the vote of ten states against one.
* * * * *
It is most probable, that these three propositions had a mutual influence upon the final vote. Those, who wished a choice to be made by the people, rather than by the national legislature, would naturally incline to a shorter period of office, than seven years. Those, who were in favour of seven years, might be willing to consent to the clause against re-eligibility, when they would resist it, if the period of office were reduced to four years. And those, who favoured the latter, might more readily yield the prohibitory clause, than increase the duration of office. All this, however, is but conjecture; and the most, that can be gathered from the final result, is, that opinions, strongly maintained at the beginning of the discussion, were yielded up in a spirit of compromise, or abandoned upon the weight of argument.
I have this picture of those aforementioned committee members, sitting around, loosening their pantaloons, hiking up their hose, and scratching under their periwigs. “Okay, guys; we’re agreed. Six years for Senators, and two for Members of Congress. Call me crazy, but an odd number for el Presidente just doesn’t do it for me.”
Two or more terms were much more contentious. Again, Story (and remember, folks, this was written in 1833):
Another question, connected with the duration of office of the president, was much agitated in the convention, and has often since been a topic of serious discussion; and that is, whether he should be re-eligible to office. In support of the opinion, that the president ought to be ineligible after one period of office, it was urged, that the return of public officers into the mass of the common people, where they would feel the tone, which they had given to the administration of the laws, was the best security the public could have for their good behaviour. It would operate as a check upon the restlessness of ambition, and at the same time promote the independence of the executive. It would prevent him from a cringing subserviency to procure a re-election; or to a resort to corrupt intrigues for the maintenance of his power. And it was even added by some, whose imaginations were continually haunted by terrors of all sorts from the existence of any powers in the national government, that the re-eligibility of the executive would furnish an inducement to foreign governments to interfere in our elections, and would thus inflict upon us all the evils, which had desolated, and betrayed Poland.
So, like the Bill of Rights, on that they couldn’t and didn’t agree before hitting the bricks. Like the Bible and “So help me God” at inauguration, the two-consecutive-terms-only custom was established by George Washington, who turned down a third term after being elected and serving twice in a row. It endured until 1947, when the states ratified the 22nd Amendment, proposed two years earlier by a Republican Congress after the electorate rehired FDR for the fourth straight time. (The 20th Amendment, ratified in 1933, and the 25th Amendment, adopted in 1967, adjusted expiration dates for presidential and congressional terms to their current status and added procedures addressing executive incapacity.
The idea of a single presidential term increased by half isn’t new, either. According to the National Archives, it’s come up in nearly every session of the Congress since the Constitution took effect. A total of 208 single-term constitutional amendments were introduced between the 19th through 104th Congresses. Nineteenth century supporters included Chief Justice John Marshall, Andrew Jackson, and Henry Clay. In April 1913, the Senate passed a bill limiting the President to one six-year term and disqualifying her from further service, but the measure never reached the House. Contemporary arguments in support were summarized as follows:
I. There is a great need for a change in the president’s tenure of office.
A. There are many evils in our present system.
1. President’s time is taken up in making stump speeches for his re-election.
2. Favors are granted to trusts in order to gain their support at re-election.
3. Regular political machine is formed.
4. Use of patronage is cultivated.
5. Large campaign funds are contributed by privilege-seeking corporations.
II. The single six-year presidential term would remedy the defects in our present system of office tenure.
A. Greater business tranquillity would result.
1. Less frequent elections would decrease the enormous expense of the country.
B. More efficient work would be rendered by the executive with one continuous term.
1. Political army would not be needed.
2. Public matters could be dealt with on their merits.
C. People could give a free vote.
1. Corporations would not buy up the votes.
Any of that sound at all familiar?
The most recent legislative activity—beyond mere introduction of amendments—took place from 1971-1973, when Judiciary Committee subcommittees in the Senate and House held hearings on proposed amendments. Contemporary champions included former President Lyndon Johnson; Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-MT), his colleagues Everett Dirksen (R-IL) and George Aiken; and George Reedy, longtime newspaperman and LBJ’s first Press Secretary. (Reedy was my first in-the-flesh exposure to the issue, after I’d joined the House Committee’s staff in May 1974.) The Watergate break-in and subsequent developments overwhelmed those two committees from then on until President Nixon’s resignation, when their post-impeachment attention turned to hearing and recommending approval of new President Gerald Ford’s nomination of Nelson Rockefeller to serve with him—making them the first non-elected President and Vice President in our history. (For you Gen-Ys and younger, former House Minority Leader Ford—who, ironically, was also an advocate for people-friendly electoral reform—was appointed in October 1973 to replace second-term Vice President Spiro Agnew, who ran afoul of his local U.S. Attorney that year.)
Let’s Continue the Argument
Long story short, the substantive arguments for and against a single term haven’t changed much over time—basically, they boil down to a triumph of policy over politics versus the risk of an imperial or corrupt occupant unwilling to go. The latter point of view got a lot of exercise during Watergate, when it wasn’t clear where Nixon would be driven and what, ultimately, he would do. Historian Arthur Schlesinger penned an exhaustive piece for The Atlantic that examined all the variables. (I do remember hearing that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had clandestine meetings to discuss what they could or would do if the Commander-in-Chief ordered up some martial self-protection; that’s how crazy things were.) Nonetheless, after that roller coaster ride, the constitutional check of impeachment worked in that case, though its use constituted partisan abuse in the two other instances it’s been invoked in our history.
Make no mistake, though; by itself this alteration would be no significant improvement. Other ideas would have to be kicked around in the same conversation, including:
- Re-examination of presidential powers expanded since at the expense of the first branch, like making war.
- Redesigning the legislative branch to make its bodies (body?) more representative of our electorate’s physical and intellectual diversity, which would make them/it less partisan by default. (The phrase “proportional representation” leaps to mind.)
- Increasing the term of Members of the House to three years, which would give them a little more time to countenance governing over fundraising.
- Fundamental reform of our national elections, including examination of the role of publicly-licensed media and corporate speech in them.
More to come.