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 term.
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 Terminal Debate
“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 President more than once…”
Presidential term limits in America are conventional, not controversial. They are an accepted fact of today’s executive cycle – one of the few things in politics that doesn’t provoke divided public comment. Yet, a brief review of executive eligibility reveals that the issue has not gone uncontested.
As I considered the political philosophy behind this amendment, I had to confront the tension between the precedent set by George Washington (he reluctantly accepted a second presidential term, and declined a third) and the Federalist Papers’ appeal for indefinite eligibility:
“Nothing appears more plausible at first sight, nor more ill-founded upon close inspection, than a scheme which in relation to the present point has had some respectable advocates – I mean that of continuing the chief magistrate in office for a certain time, and then excluding him from it, either for a limited period or forever after.” (Federalist #72)
The Federalist Papers are pretty much the gold standard in analyzing human motivation/selfish ambition and how it can be expected to play out in political office; so when Alexander Hamilton says that term limits could not be more ill-founded, I am prone to believe him.
He goes on to enumerate a convincing list of the disadvantages of putting an expiration date on a qualified president – namely, that term-limits discourage the accountability of the man and the stability of the office. Furthermore, he argues that it is counterintuitive to drain the collected wisdom and experience from the office of the president, while that president remains the popular choice.
But for all of Hamilton’s logic, when George Washington – the first practitioner of American political principle – voluntarily retired his post after eight years, I am inclined to respect that, as well. There was nothing to withhold him, but Mt. Vernon and principle. Given Washington’s outstanding record of public service, I am more inclined to believe it was principle.
One of the most central principles of our republic – underscored in the Declaration of Independence – was the rejection of tyranny. Washington demonstrated that a self-effacing executive was just as important as separation of power and an educated public to guarding against it.
FDR was the only president to breach the unspoken, two-term rule by winning four consecutive elections. A few years after, the 22nd amendment was ratified to make it a written rule. The occasional congressman will try to repeal it, but so far their legislation has never made it out of committee. Subsequently, both Presidents Reagan and Clinton could have won third terms, but, per the amendment, none have thrice been president. Still, the philosophy of the Federalists has not undone the precedent of the founder.
Michaela Goertzen is a speechwriter at the office of Alaska Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell
May 29, 2012