When President Abraham Lincoln wrote of a “government of, by, and for the people,” he was echoing the central idea behind forming the country and writing the U.S. Constitution. George Washington, the father of term limits, eschewed career politicians. He believed that leaders in a representative democracy should be common citizens, no better or worse than any other citizen, in order to establish a representative democracy with citizen control.

The Constitution’s focus on a strong representative government allowed citizens to elect their representatives from the people. These representatives, expected to work for the people and not their own interests, didn’t always work out. Washington said, “Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder,” a fact that becomes more problematic as representatives gain power through time in office.

The longer representatives stay in office the more influence they gather. Once entrenched and institutionalized, there is a greater tendency for officeholders to make decisions based on how it affects their career and re-election then on how that decision affects the people.

Washington also wrote “(representatives) are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

Thomas Jefferson understood this and fought for term limits in the Constitution. He long regretted that the Constitution “abandoned in every instance of the necessity of rotation in office (term limits), and most particularly in the case of the president.” He also hoped giving up the presidency after two terms would help establish a two-term presidential norm. Near the end of his life, Jefferson wrote, “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves.”

Surprisingly, 75 percent of Americans support congressional term limits, as well as politicians from all political stripes, including Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. The nation has had presidential term limits since 1951; most states, 36 out of 50, have gubernatorial term limits; and 15 states have legislative term limits.

As expected, turnover in states with legislature term limits increased to a higher but stable level. Many entrenched politicians decide that running a truly competitive re-election campaign every two to four years, without the prospect of a 20- or 30-year pension, was not worth the effort and chose not to run again. Those only interested in running to gain name recognition for political or business reasons tended not to run either.

That dynamic opens opportunities for people with experience in business and local government to run. Additionally, advancement to leadership positions changeds from longevity and connections to merit, attracting qualified and dedicated legislators whose primary interest was in doing their part to serve their state.

We can expect the same if the nation adopts congressional term limits.

Lobbyists oppose term limits and high turnover because it takes time, campaign contributions, and other perks to recruit a reliable ally in Congress. Career politicians oppose term limits because they will lose the lucrative relationship with career lobbyists. Some who think we the only “term limits” we need come through voting someone out at the ballot box oppose term limits; they should remember that because of name recognition and a well-financed campaigns, 97 percent of U.S. representatives and 93 percent of U.S. senators get re-elected.

When Jefferson wrote he knew of no safer depository for national power than the people, 1 percent of Congress had served over 16 years. Two hundred years later, that figure is 20 percent, a fact that would have Washington and Jefferson rolling over in their graves.

The question of how to get term limits is of concern to many. The framers of the Constitution wrote Article V allowing citizens to thwart congressional abuses of power. It gives the states the ability to start the process of congressional term limits without congressional approval.

Two-thirds of state legislatures must pass essentially the same bill and apply for a Constitutional Convention to consider amendments for congressional term limits, and after the convention three-quarters of the states must ratify the amendment before enactment.

Some fear a Constitutional Convention would allow Congress to open a Pandora’s Box of amendments and use a convention to advance their own partisan agendas.

But it would be difficult to ram through multiple amendments that the people oppose because each amendment must be ratified by three-quarters of the states, as noted above, before it can be adopted.

Let’s return government to the citizens.

Tom Waddell is president of the Maine Chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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