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Ben Franklin had the best case for term limits

Published in Blog on August 11, 2019 by Convention of States Project

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One of the constitutional amendments allowed under the Convention of States resolution is one which limits the terms of office for federal officials. But why are term limits a good idea? 

Lawrence W. Reed, writing for the Foundation for Economic Education, published a great answer to this question, and we've republished an excerpt below. The original article appeared in 2001, but it's as true today as it's ever been.

It was Benjamin Franklin who summed up the best case for term limits more than two centuries ago: “In free governments, the rulers are the servants, and the people their superiors . . . . For the former to return among the latter does not degrade, but promote them.”

In other words, when politicians know they must return to ordinary society and live under the laws passed while they were in government, at least some of them will think more carefully about the long-term effects of the programs they support. Their end-all will not be re-election, because that option will not be available. [...]

Term limits have been approved almost everywhere they’ve been on the ballot because concerned citizens see them as a positive structural reform, a necessary step to change the incentives of legislators so they would think more about the good of their states and country and less about their next campaign. Those citizens want to ensure a regular supply of fresh blood and new ideas in legislative bodies. They want to open the system to more people from a variety of professions. They want to make public officials less responsive to organized, well-heeled lobbies and more interested in serving the welfare of society at large.

But what about that paramount issue of great interest to readers of this magazine—the issue of individual liberty? Do term limits enhance or detract from its protection?

For sure, people in a free and democratic society ultimately get the government they vote for. Term limits cannot guarantee either individual liberty or good government if voters with bad ideas replace bad legislators with other bad people. Ben Franklin may have supported term limits, but he also believed, with John Philpot Curran, that in any event, “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.”

However, the evidence suggests that at the margin, term limits are helpful to the cause of individual liberty. Elhauge’s report showed that term limits lessen the influence of seniority. His research demonstrated that long-term lawmakers from both major parties vote for more bureaucracy than do lawmakers who have been in office for shorter times. Term limits lessen the ability of lawmakers to develop cozy deals with either bureaucracies or special interests that seek to get something from government at everyone else’s expense.

Stephen Moore, writing for the Cato Institute, says that an examination of the voting behavior of congressmen reveals that on a wide range of liberty-related issues—“not raising the minimum wage, defunding the National Endowment for the Arts, closing down the Legal Services Corporation, and cutting taxes—junior members [are] less likely to vote to tax, spend, regulate and otherwise stick Washington’s nose in our private affairs than [are] the old bulls.”

Ultimately, term limits ensure that federal officials stop obsessing over the next election cycle and instead focus on what they were elected to do: fight for the good of their constituents and the American people at large. 

But Congress is unlikely to impose term limits on itself. The only way to do it is via an Article V Convention of States, and millions have already joined the cause. Click here to learn more.

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What is less known is that the Founders gave state legislatures the power to act as a final check on abuses of power by Washington, DC. Article V of the U.S. Constitution authorizes the state legislatures to call a convention for proposing needed amendments to the Constitution. This process does not require the consent of the federal government in Washington, DC.

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