One of the few things Republicans and Democrats can agree on these days is that our political system is broken. As the sound and fury of politics rises, the effectiveness of our elected officials plummets.
Congress is less popular than Genghis Kahn and root canals. We don’t have to accept this. There are concrete steps we can take to change things for the better. Term limits for Congress is the most important among these.
To understand the power of term limits we need to go back to the American Revolution. As the rag-tag Continental Army fought the mighty British Empire, they derived inspiration from the example of the Roman hero Cincinnatus. In the fifth century BC, the Roman Senate called on Cincinnatus to lead Rome against a foreign invasion. The former general left his plough in the middle of his field and ran to answer the call. After his victory, however, Cincinnatus didn’t cling to the vast wartime powers he’d been given.
He promptly resigned his position and returned to his farm. Following this example, Continental Army soldiers left farms and shops to join the fight. They then returned home seeking little more than the back pay they were owed. Their leader—Gen. George Washington—did likewise. After the war, Washington resigned his commission and returned to his farm at Mount Vernon. When he was called out of retirement to serve as president, he did so for two terms.
Then he once again relinquished power and returned to Mount Vernon. For generations, America’s leaders followed the example of Cincinnatus and Washington. But such selfless civic virtue didn’t last. Today, it’s increasingly rare for a politician to voluntarily return to private life. The citizen legislator has been replaced by the career politician. And when their primary goal is to stay in office, congressmen often prioritize two constituencies over their actual constituents back home: donors and the media. These two sources provide the paid advertising and the “earned media” that are essential to reelection.
How do we create more Cincinnati and Washingtons? We can’t legislate civic virtue. But through term limits we can remove the corrupting temptation of a career in Congress. Once new congressmen know they can only serve a brief period in DC, the will cease to prioritize reelection above all. In their final terms, they will cease to prioritize reelection altogether. This will significantly diminish the incentive to serve donors and the media. It will therefore help return the focus to where it should be: on what’s best for their constituents and our country.
The American people understand this. In our increasingly polarized country, term limits are one of the few ideas that still enjoy broad, bipartisan support. A recent poll conducted by pollster Scott Rasmussen showed that 82% of Americans favor term limits for Congress. Broken down by party lines, 87% of Republicans favored congressional terms limits; 83% of Democrats favored term limits; and 78% of independents favored the idea.
But Congress will never vote to impose term limits on themselves. So we need to pursue another path to enact term limits. Luckily, Article V of the Constitution provides such a path. When enough states request a convention to add a term limits amendment to the Constitution, Congress is legally bound to comply. A simple majority vote of a state legislature is sufficient to make such a request.
Five states—Florida, Alabama, Missouri, West Virginia, and Wisconsin—have asked for a national convention to amend the Constitution limited to the subject of congressional term limits. Nevada should be next. For more than a century, U.S. presidents followed Washington’s example and refused to seek a third term. Then President Franklin Roosevelt ran for and won a third and fourth term. Shortly thereafter, we ratified the 22nd Amendment limiting presidents to two terms. When presidents were no longer willing to voluntarily follow Washington’s two-term limit, we amended the Constitution to force them to do so. The time has come to do the same for Congress. Let’s make sure that Nevada takes the lead in getting this done.
David Brog is the Nevada State Chair of U.S. Term Limits, the largest grassroots term-limits advocacy group in the country. It connects term-limits supporters with their legislators and work to pass term limits at all levels of government, particularly on the U.S. Congress. Find out more at www.termlimits.org