Op-ed: Follow the Framers of the Constitution and vote no on term limits

By Deseret News Aug 28, 2017, 7:05am MDT

Rodney K. Smith and Josman Cereceres, For the Deseret News

Albert Einstein said, “The only source of knowledge is experience.” We would hire someone with experience to drain a swamp on our land. If we had a major case in the Supreme Court and our lives depended on the result, we would hire someone like former Solicitor General Rex E. Lee, one of two most successful lawyers to appear before the Supreme Court in the 20th century.

There is an accelerating push to limit the terms of senators and members of the House. In a recent Rasmussen poll, 75 percent of Americans support term limits, while a mere 13 percent oppose them.

The hue and cry calling for term limits reached a crescendo when Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Ron DeSantis introduced a bill calling for a constitutional amendment limiting the term of service of members of the Senate to 12 years and representatives to six years. Cruz supported the effort as a means of ending cronyism and fulfilling the president’s promise to “drain the swamp.” Sen. Mike Lee, in turn, offered an amendment calling for limiting the terms of both senators and representatives to 12 years.

Are term limits a good idea? Some of the wisest among us — the Framers of the Constitution — did not think so. The national government under the Articles of Confederation, the predecessor to government under the Constitution, included term limits for representatives in the Continental Congress. Many state constitutions also limited terms for state legislators. The Framers lived with and understood term limits well. They debated the term limits issue on seven occasions and repeatedly declined to include term limits, in any form, in the Constitution.

We are not bound by decisions of the Framers. We may amend the Constitution. Before we rush to support such an effort, however, we should count the cost.

Lee asserts that the right to vote is diluted when a candidate with seniority tells “his or her constituents, ‘Look, I know we’re all citizens in a free republic and that means you can vote for whomever you want, but given the amount of seniority and authority that I’ve accrued during my time in this or that body of Congress, you should know that if you don’t vote for me you will lose money and power and influence.’”

Lee’s assertion turns the “right to vote” argument on its head. Term limits take away the right to vote for the candidate of one’s choice simply because that member of Congress has served well for 12 or more years. No voter is forced to vote for an incumbent due to seniority, and many do not. Seniority is often used as an argument for change on the part of a challenger, as it was by Lee at his party’s convention when he defeated Sen. Jim Bennett, who had served for 18 years.

The best argument supporting term limits is that incumbents have too much power and are owned by special interests. That argument is unpersuasive. In Utah, Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee won their seats in the Senate against senators who had served for 18 years.

Money often lines up against incumbents, particularly if they have offended their highly partisan base. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, for example, served for six terms in the House and is seeking a second term in the Senate in 2018. He has written a book about draining the swamp by restoring true conservative principles to his party, and he has a reputation of working with those he disagrees with. President Donald Trump is urging his populist base to raise $10 million to defeat Flake in the Republican primary.

The real builders of the swamp — the failure to get things done in Washington — are the far-left base in the Democratic Party and the far-right or populist base in the Republican Party. In his book “The Price of Politics,” Bob Woodward, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, revealed that government ceased to operate in the Obama years because President Barack Obama could not get support from his party’s progressive base and Speaker John Boehner could not get support from his far-right, populist base to craft a compromise.

The extreme Democratic and Republican bases refused to work with the other side to reach the kinds of compromises that the Framers understood were at the heart of good government. The Constitution was itself based on the Great Compromise. The uncompromising bases in both parties eschew moderate candidates, often replacing them in party conventions and caucuses. Yet, it is those experienced moderates who reach across the aisle and get things done – they drain the swamp.

James Madison, the father of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, said, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” As Einstein said, knowledge comes from experience. Follow in the footsteps of the Framers and vote no on term limits.

Rodney K. Smith is the director of the Center for Constitutional Studies at Utah Valley University, and Josman Cereceres is a student and fellow associated with the center.