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The Dorky Idea Americans Deserve

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

“Term limits was, you know, one of the dorkiest ideas of the 1994 so-called Newt Gingrich revolution,” Daniel McCarthy, editor at large of The American Conservative told Tom Woods on a recent podcast. “And it didn’t really go anywhere.”


Granted, Congress is still not term-limited. But Americans in 15 states — including California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, and Ohio, and representing 37 percent of the nation’s population — do enjoy term-limited state legislatures. 

Nine of the ten largest cities in America have likewise termed-limited their elected officeholders.

And it sure wasn’t Newt Gingrich’s idea. Gingrich opposed it.

“You can make a case for term limits, sure,” McCarthy continued. “But you can also make a case against them,” he blithely proceeds, arguing that what term limitation “winds up doing is actually weakening Congress and congresspeople in particular — relative to their own staff, who stay in Congress and become sort of experts and learn how to manipulate their congressman, and also relative to the executive branch who have people rotate in from time to time.”

“Oh my gosh,” Woods added mockingly, “I’m falling asleep already.”

McCarthy was bemoaning that one of the Pauls — he couldn’t quite recall whether it was former Congressman Ron Paul (R-Tex.) or current U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — had put out a campaign piece years ago highlighting the term limits issue. “Why on earth was this the thing that any libertarian-leaning Republican would choose to focus on?” he asked, before concluding, “It’s just what political consultants think is a nice, kind of middle-of-the-road way to get conservative voters.”

McCarthy sells the Pauls short, and libertarians, too. The process matters. So do the incentives of those politicians pulling levers supposedly at our behest. 

McCarthy even sells Aristotle short. It was the great Greek philosopher who wrote of the importance of equal citizens “ruling and being ruled in turn.” 

Not to mention Thomas Jefferson, who, in opposing ratification of the Constitution, argued against its “abandonment in every instance of the necessity of rotation in office, and most particularly in the case of the President.”

Term limitation: an important republican check on power for centuries.

McCarthy — and Woods, too, apparently — completely miss the tremendous support the American people have sustained over many decades for term limits. The issue has certainly not triumphed in the DC swamp, inhabited by the “consultants” and their professional pol clients that Daniel McCarthy rightly is worried about. Term limits have only won at the ballot box, where voters lay down their trumps. 

Most of all, the idea that term limits weaken the Congress is pure bunk — disproved not merely by hopefully eloquent arguments, but by the stark reality before us. Congress, the branch of government designed by the Constitution’s framers to be the most powerful and the closest to the people, is the weakest branch, and is consistently the most despised by the public.

“This is not the system our Founders envisioned,” David French wrote in a piece for National Reviewlast week. 

“The Founders . . . intended legislative supremacy,” he declared. “The legislature can remove the executive. The legislature can pass laws over the president’s objection. The legislature can remove any federal judge or justice from the Supreme Court. It can sharply limit the jurisdiction of the courts. Its latent constitutional authority is breathtaking in its scope.”

French is right. And yet, he correctly added, “Congress is an afterthought. It has formally delegated an enormous amount of power to the executive branch.”

And to the courts.

But this is most obviously not a Congress “weakened” by term limits, right?

No, this Let’s-Give-Our-Power-Away cabal is clearly a Congress dominated by career politicians with ample “experience” in the ways of Washington. One could only imagine they are as un-manipulate-able by congressional staff as humanly, incumbently, possible.

The president was constitutionally limited, in 1952, to two terms, eight years in office. Congress remains unlimited in tenure, except by the grim reaper. There are congressional seats that have been controlled by the same family for nearly 100 years — consider, for example, Congresswoman Debbie Dingell in Michigan’s 12th congressional district.

Yet, since 1952, the president’s power has clearly grown and the Congress’s power has receded.

When the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on Neil Gorsuch’s nomination for a lifetime seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, there were three U.S. Senators sitting on that one committee — Chuck Grassley (R-Ia.), Orrin Hatch (R-Ut.), and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — who had served over 40 years in Congress, longer than the longest ever serving lifetime-appointed Supreme Court justice. 

Our Congressional Metheselahs clearly correlate with a weakened Congress, a body shedding its governmental responsibility in search of its members’ electoral safety. 

A term-limited Congress would be less dorky than that

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