The Drive To Limit the Voters

GARRY WILLS

November 20, 1991|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago. - Washington state turned down the initiative for limiting office-holders' terms, but other states are still trying to introduce this novelty into our politics. There is something artificial in this effort. Any constituents can limit a politician's term by refusing to vote for him or her the next time up. Most constituents do not do that. It is the survivability of incumbents that is resented.

This means one of two things. Either the actual constituents are saying, ''Stop me before I vote again'' -- a way of admitting that their vote is irresponsible. Or people are trying to put limits on the constituents of other politicians, for whom they cannot directly vote no.

In either case, there is something profoundly undemocratic about the proposal. Trusting the voters is precisely what democracy has to do in order to work. And letting the constituents of candidate A tell the constituents of candidate B that they cannot vote their preference is hitting at the very essence of responsible representation.

All these matters were thrashed out very thoroughly in the ratifying debates of the various states voting on the Constitution proposed by the Philadelphia convention. Opponents of the document made a war cry of the words ''rotation'' and ''re-eligibility.'' The first meant that office-holders could not hold consecutive terms. The second meant they could not even seek non-consecutive terms. Both objections were overridden, precisely on the democratic grounds I have mentioned.

But it can be objected that we do limit terms in one office, that of the president. True. But we made this limit by constitutional amendment, not by initiative, referendum or statute. And this was done because of the peculiarities of an office so powerful anyway, and one so peculiarly capable of abuse.

Even some of those who opposed rotation in other offices were tempted to put limits on the presidency in the 1780s. This was the office most feared by those who had had unhappy experience with kings, royal governors and other executives.

Jefferson argued that the president should be limited to one term. He served two, of course, when his time came, and might have served more if George Washington, responding to the fears of such a kinglike officer, had not set the two-term precedent.

It was regard for Washington's example, as much as uneasiness about Franklin D. Roosevelt's lifetime-presidency (death in the fourth term), that made people formalize the Washington example by constitutional amendment.

The sole powers of an executive in the nuclear age who may be in declining health (as Roosevelt was) made term limits desirable here. Woodrow Wilson wanted a third term even after he suffered his massive stroke. Ronald Reagan wanted one while he was flirting with senility. Presidents should train up successors, not cling to such lethal powers as they possess.

None of these circumstances affect congressional office. If voters want to turn rascals out at that level, let them do it the democratic way, constituency by constituency, representative by representative.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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