Wednesday, June 22, 2005

A Cheney Problem? No, a Twenty-Second Amendment Problem: The Perils of Term Limits

In today's New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman laments the aimless drifting, "disconnected from the problems facing the country" which he claims to observe thus far in President Bush's second term.

Whether the President and his Administration are adrift is subject to debate, of course. And it should be said that Friedman has decided ideas on what problems are facing America, ideas that differ from the President's perceptions of America's problems.

But, whether in advancing Social Security reform, getting a new national energy policy, securing the confirmation of long-stalled judicial appointees, or sending a new ambassador to the United Nations, Mr. Bush's second term has been marked by ineffectuality. Were it not for the oft-maligned Gang of Fourteen in the United States Senate, whose compromise advanced Mr. Bush's judicial agenda, the President could point to almost no accomplishments in the first six-plus months of his second term.

Why is this? Friedman claims that, "George Bush has a Dick Cheney problem."
It's not the one you think: an overbearing, archconservative vice president
imposing his will and ideas on a less-seasoned president.

No, George Bush has a different V.P. problem. It is the fact that his
vice president has made clear that he is not running for president after Mr.
Bush's term expires in 2008. So Mr. Bush has no heir apparent. And that
explains, in part, why his second term is drifting aimlessly, disconnected from
the problems facing the country.

"If President Bush had a vice president, or someone who was clearly
designated as heir apparent to his administration, [the president] would have a
more immediate incentive to widen his political base, to offer policies that
would appeal more to the center" argued Don Baer, a former senior adviser to
President Clinton. But if one looks at the sorts of policies that Mr. Bush has
chosen, or not chosen, for his second term, it suggests that Mr. Bush "is not
thinking of the bigger implications" for three years down the road, Mr. Baer
Well, maybe. But I think it's more apt to say that the President suffers from a Twenty-Second Amendment problem, exacerbated by a major political miscalculation.

First, to the miscalculation. I've addressed this before and I won't run it too far into the ground now. Basically, I think that Mr. Bush, adviser Karl Rove, and others thought that with a more solid Republican majority in the Congress and the President's impressive November win, the President could advance a big idea agenda and win Rooseveltian or Reaganite legislative victories.

The first big idea the President talked about on the day after his re-election, one on which he said he would willingly expend his "political capital," is Social Security reform, including private accounts. But Social Security reform, so far, has not caught fire. Private accounts seem especially unpopular. (I hasten to add that I like both ideas. But that doesn't alter the politics of things.)

Part of Congress' reticence to go along with the President on reforming the Social Security system no doubt has to do with the powerful interest groups, like AARP, that have lined up against it.

But I believe that the President could have surmounted the opposition by now if it weren't for the pesky Twenty Second Amendment.

My old Political Science professor at Ohio State (who later went to Cleveland State), Jim Kweder, used to point out that this amendment, along with those establishing and abolishing Prohibition, are the only changes to the US Constitution that have limited freedom. All the other amendments have expanded freedom in America.

The Twenty-Second Amendment says:
1. No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than
twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as
President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was
elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than
once. But this Article shall not apply to any person holding the office of
President, when this Article was proposed by the Congress, and shall not prevent
any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President,
during the term within which this Article becomes operative from holding the
office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such

2. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as
an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the
several States within seven years from the date of its submission to the States
by the Congress.

A Republican Congress sent this proposed amendment to the states and worked hard to secure the states' ratification of it during the Truman Administration. The Republicans had been defeated in five consecutive presidential elections, the first four at the hands of Franklin Roosevelt and the fifth at those of his successor, Harry Truman. The GOP deemed it unfair and railed against the royalist impulses they claimed to see in the Democrats. The amendment passed in 1951.

In November, 1952, Republican Dwight Eisenhower won the presidency by a landslide, something he did again in 1956. There is no doubt that Ike would have been re-elected in 1960, had he been able to run again. Republicans then lamented their advocacy of the Twenty-Second Amendment. They regretted it again in 1988, when Ronald Reagan would have been a shoo-in for re-election.

Term limits have clearly proved to be bad politics, something that bites their advocates eventually.

They also hurt second-term Presidents. At the moment they're re-elected, they become "lame ducks," eminently ignorable chief executives. Both Congress and the federal bureaucracy can wait out a re-elected President, knowing full well that there is very little lasting harm that he can do to them.

This is why second-term presidents have been notoriously ineffective, even when two-terms of service were simply a custom.

A President may ameliorate the effects of the amendment by touting a successor, as Friedman suggests, but that's far from foolproof. There is no chief executive more able to negotiate with Congress as an equal partner in the legislative process than one who looks to be around for awhile.

Term limits, to put it simply, are a bad idea. They overlook the fact that our system already had term limits in place. They were called elections.

The way to get rid of elected officials who hold onto power like kings and queens, the problem that term limits ostensibly addresses, isn't to disqualify people from running for office or limiting voters' ability to select the most qualified people in the voting booth. It resides in reforming the system so that incumbents aren't given inordinate advantage and so that having more money doesn't give a political contributor more "free" speech.

Term limits aren't just a bad idea for Presidents, they're bad for all elected officials at every level of government.

Whenever I talk with my friends and acquaintances who serve in public office here in Ohio, they rail against term limits. And they're all members of the party--the Republican Party--that was so enamored of this idea and got a state constitutional amendment passed by the voters enacting it for legislators and members of the executive branch.

It has had disastrous consequences for our state. Among them:
Inexperienced legislators, less schooled in the ways of the General Assembly and the bureuacracy, are more than ever, at the mercy of bureaucrats and interest groups.

Without a more thorough knowledge of the workings of government and the Assembly, members have relied more heavily on partisanship than on actually studying the issues at hand.

Scandal and mismanagement are easier to pull off because term-limited elected officials don't know where to look for evidence of wrongdoing. (Ohio is now dealing with a major scandal, by the way.)

In our statewide offices--governor, lieutenant governor,auditor, attorney general, treasurer, secretary of state--we've seen a game of "revolving doors," in which the same well-known names shift from one office to another, irrespective of the aspirants' qualifications for a specific job.
A recent study by the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron found that while most Ohioans still favor term lmits, most legislators would like to see them modified or ended. Of course, the legislators have a vested interest in such changes to the system. But I believe Ohioans do as well.

Bottom line: Term limits are fatal to elected officials' effectiveness. President Bush would have had a much better start to his second term if it weren't for the Twenty-Second Amendment. But wishing for its repeal for the benefit of the country and some future President's effectiveness is probably too much for which to hope.

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