Thursday, April 01, 2010

Term Limits Revisited

The decisions made by two key political players in Connecticut, Gov. Jodi Rell and U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, not to defend their seats in the upcoming election gives the lie to assertions often made by opponents of term limits that they would diminish the intellectual substance of the office vacated.

After Rell announced she would not run again for governor last November, a number of Republicans and Democrats rush to fill the vacuum, leaving in their wake other positions to be occupied.

Wounded by allegations that his relationship to the businesses he was regulating as head of the powerful banking committee was too cozy, Dodd adroitly stepped aside.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal then leapt, some said too precipitously, into the breech, and when Blumenthal announced he was permanently separating himself from an attorney general position he had occupied for more than two decades, secretary of state Susan Bysiewicz announced her availability, some said too precipitously, leaving her present position opened to other Democrats.

Now, it so happens that none of the Democrats or Republicans scurrying to occupy the positions to be left vacant refused to move into these slots because by doing so their old positions would be orphaned. Blumenthal obviously does not believe he would be irreplaceable as attorney general, otherwise he would not have abandoned his position to run for U.S. senator. Rell does not believe she is irreplaceable, nor do any of the Republicans or Democrats running for governor.

Unruffled by Rell’s announcement in early in November of 2009 that she would resign at the end of her term in office, state Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo announced, “I feel confident that our bench of candidates for this position will bring to the table the kind of ideas and proposals that Connecticut voters will be able to relate to and have confidence in. This is good news for our party, and the people of this state."

There is in the section of the U.S. Constitution providing for the replacement of chiefs of state and legislators a buried assumption, not often touted by incumbents, that all politicians are replaceable, however inconvenient the replacement process may be to those who view their positions as permanent sinecures.

All current Connecticut politicians vying for offices left vacant, Blumenthal more insistently than most, pledge to carry their intelligence and prior experience into the job they hope to fill. Statements made by Blumenthal very shortly after Dodd, having communed with the ghost of departed U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, had decided not to seek re-election led some commentators to suppose that the attorney general, once in office, would be a Dodd doppelganger. Since then, Blumenthal has been at pains to convince voters that distinctions may be drawn between him Dodd. Blumenthal also separated on one important point from President Barack Obama, disagreeing sharply with the president and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder concerning the propriety of trying some terrorists in U.S. civilian courts.

So then, what we see here gives an indication of what would happen if term limits were to be employed: Positions would open, and they would be filled by politicians some of whom occupy other offices, whose positions would in turn be filled by incumbent politicians or others who might bring fresh perspectives and new talents into these offices.

Term limits, more republican than apple pie, will not cripple government. This puerile notion that term limits deprive the state of useful intelligence was always bogus. It is a point useful to kings and kingmakers but should have no place in a vibrant democracy. That frequent rotation in a democracy is essential will be obvious to anyone who has spent some time studying the founding documents of the country.

Term limits have a long history, both in the ancient Roman republic and in the republic that Ben Franklyn had in mind when he told a lady who had inquired what kind of government the founders had settled upon, a monarchy or a republic: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

In fact, Franklin’s influence was clearly evident in the drafting of the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776, which set a maximum service of “four years in seven” for assemblymen. That constitution contained unchanged Franklin’s earlier proposals on executive rotation, in which twelve citizens were elected for three years followed by a mandatory vacation of four years. During the Continental Congress of 1789, Thomas Jefferson pressed for a limitation of tenure “to prevent every danger which might arise to American freedom by continuing too long in office the members of the Continental Congress.” Jefferson’s term limits were incorporated unchanged into the Articles of Confederation, which stated in the fifth article “no person shall be capable of being a delegate to the continental congress for more than three years in any term of six years.”

The founders were close students of the Roman Republic whose magistrates -- tribunes of the plebs, aediles, quaestors, praetors, and consuls – were permitted to serve only a single term of one year, after which re-election was forbidden for ten years, a practice abolished, along with any possible restoration of Roman republicanism, by the radical reforms of Julius Ceasar which, it may be confidently supposed, were more admired by King George of Britain than Franklin or Jefferson.

Presently, there are two candidates running for office on the Republican ticket who have said they will term-limit themselves: Linda McManon, a canidate for the U.S. senate, and Sam Caliguiri, a candidate for the U.S. House in the 5th district.

Both stand in a tradition that stretches from the Roman Republic to the republic that Franklin hoped we would be able to summon the wisdom and fortitude "to keep."
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