Amendment XXII to the U.S. Constitution sets a two-term limit on the office of the president. Should members of the other two branches follow the same rule?
George Washington, who established the custom of Presidents voluntarily leaving the office after two terms, inspired a limit on the president’s tenure. His decision to step down is celebrated by the song “One Last Time” in the Broadway musical Hamilton, in which Alexander Hamilton confronts Washington, “Why do you have to say goodbye?” Washington replies confidently: “The nation learns to move on, it outlives me when I’m gone.” The move was seen as an important safeguard against tyrannical power. The limit was made official in 1951, when Amendment XXII was ratified by the states.
Today, Americans concerned about government corruption and accountability have turned to the idea of term limits for both elected and appointed officials at all levels. Proponents of term limits believe they could reduce corruption and increase independence from special interests. By revisiting issues and positions regularly, everything would get a fresh look periodically. If power is limited, the thinking goes, so is corruption.
On the other hand, defenders of unlimited terms point to the experience and independence gained from long service. With any large government bureaucracy, public servants are most effective and most resistant to special interests when they’re more knowledgeable.
With regard to the Supreme Court of the United States, leading scholars on the left and on the right have proposed single, 18-year terms for justices. By barring midterm judicial appointments, such a system would tend to give a one-term President two appointments to the Court and a two-term President four appointments. It could lower the stakes in individual confirmation fights and reduce polarization on the Court. It could also help the Court stay in touch with larger shifts in society. Considering, however, the current political climate, it is more likely that that the status quo will remain interminable.
-Anne Linton Pond Hendrickson