Celebrating our first term-limited politicians

Posted: Feb 25, 2007 12:00 AM

Presidents’ Day came and went . . . and I didn’t give my wife a present!

As you age, you forget these things.

In honor of George Washington, I could have given her a wooden smile, or retired after my second term as Taker-Outer of The Garbage.

In honor of Abe Lincoln, I could have grown a beard.

Or I could just have given her a box of chocolates.

Among my favorite presidents stands Grover Cleveland, a man of girth, the kind unlikely to pass up the chocolates (if you can tell from pictures). His daughter, Ruth, first presidential offspring to be born in the White House, was honored with a popular chocolate bar named after her, the Baby Ruth.

So, next year, chocolates.

But Presidents’ Day got me thinking. I notice that when historians choose the “greatest” presidents, they tend to choose war guys, or those who increase the size of the government. (Surprise, surprise: these are often the same.) I prefer, on the other hand, presidents like Jefferson and Harding, politicians who actually decreased the scope and budgets of the federal government while in office.

Recent presidents have talked about following suit, but have yet to accomplish anything like it. That’s why they aren’t great presidents, if you ask me.

So, in this spirit of cutting back, maybe I shouldn’t eat any of the chocolates I give. Maybe I should go on a diet.

Ahem, er, let’s not think about that; let’s wander back to the beginning, the beginning of all American political celebrations.

On July 2, 1776, America’s Second Continental Congress agreed upon the Lee Resolution, resolving that, in the words of the document, “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."

John Adams, writing to his wife the next day, prophesied that July 2nd would become the most memorable in the history of our country, celebrated with parades, marching bands, speeches . . .

He was wrong. It was the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, on the 4th, that went down in history. Who remembers the Lee Resolution?

No biggie, I guess. Celebrating the Declaration makes sense. Call it a triumph of eloquence over legislation.

America’s first constitution was written in 1776 and adopted in late 1777, and called the Articles of Confederation. In those days, the leader of Congress was called the President, in the sense of “presiding officer.” Samuel Huntington, the fifth president of the Second Continental Congress, was the first to be referred to as “President of the United States, in Congress Assembled,” but it was John Hanson, the successor to Huntington’s successor, who most often used the designation as President outside of the most official of acts, such as the signing of treaties.

He’s sometimes called the Forgotten First President. Truth is, he wasn’t the first, and he’s not quite forgotten.

Presidents in those days were the very opposite of monarchs. They had little power. And the Articles limited their term in office to one year!

Modern-day presidents seem more like kings, possessing vast hoards of power. But, thanks to the 22nd amendment to America’s second constitution, they, too, possess term limits.

Our current Congress has no term limits, however. Senators, Representatives — all may serve as long as they can win in lopsided elections where their advantages as incumbents tend to swamp most challengers. And our Constitution does not limit their time served on committees or time spent presiding as Speaker of the House or as Senate president pro tem. These matters are entirely up to the un-term-limited Congress.

Which is a big problem. It allows for accumulations of power. New Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank recently told the Washington Post, “Financial services companies are inclined to give to me because I’m chairman of the committee important to their interests.” When asked if banking interests felt “obligated” to give to him because of his position, Frank replied, “Obligated? No. Incentivized? Yes."

Ah, incentived! How are incumbents incentivized? Well, unlimited terms give them too much time . . .

• to learn ways to work behind the scenes for their own benefit;
• to bottleneck power in committees and in favored positions;
• to learn tricky ways to give special benefits to favored constituents, like their donors (oink oink: I’m talkin’ pork here).

How much better was the spirit of term limits exemplified in the original Articles!

Then power could not congeal nearly so well, for our ill. Then temptations to gain federal booty might actually decrease. Maybe we’d be able to control those whose power and influence and money comes from a government that’s always growing.

The presiding officers of the Continental Congress had the opposite problem, historians tell us: government couldn’t grow enough. Hmmm. It’s worth remembering at least a few of these presidents if only to balance the recent batch of Government Growers:

• John Hancock was the first to sign the Declaration . . . and the only member of the Continental Congress to sign the document on the very day we now call “Independence Day."
• Lawyer and spymaster Elias Boudinot presided over Congress when the Treaty of Paris was signed by the British government, certifying America’s independence; he too, along with John Hanson, has been called, by some revisionists, “the First President” of these United States.
• Richard Henry Lee, who served as the sixth under the Articles, was the man responsible for the Lee Resolution, and he also deserves to be known as the revolutionary who staked out one of the strongest, most purposeful positions on the right to bear arms, saying, “To preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms, and be taught alike, especially when young, how to use them."

I wonder how many Americans thought of these original presidents on Presidents’ Day? As Red Buttons liked to say, these were men who “never got a dinner"; that is, they don’t get toasted or roasted much today.

So who does deserve celebration?

Well, according to the legislators of the state of Arkansas, not Tom Paine.

A few weeks ago Arkansas legislators voted down a proposed official day to celebrate the birth of the author of “Common Sense.” Why? Because of his late-in-life authorship of that great work of Deist controversy, Age of Reason.

Was that vote anything like common sense? Maybe.

I used to think that the setting up of special days and the like, to honor this or that cause, this or that man or woman, was one of the more harmless activities that legislatures could engage in.

Now I wonder. Maybe how we celebrate our days is no business of government. Let private groups conceive, promote, and honor those days they deem special. And governments? Just butt out and keep mum.

So, I offer this brief bit of history now, well ahead of July 2, to allow you time to prepare your holiday celebrations. Just in case you decide to celebrate July 2.

Like, maybe, read a bit of history.

Or grow a Lincolnian beard . . . or take out the trash exactly when asked.

I guess that beard suggestion, at least, will not likely apply to women, but you know what I mean: do something special.

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