In light of recent events where, time and time again, the United States government, in particular that dilapidated branch named Legislative, has proven itself dysfunctional and broken it has become self evident to this author that a fundamental change in America’s governmental process has now become a necessity. The vitriol and angst that has become so pervasive and intoxicating to the esteemed members of the highest legislative body of our nation is such that there is simply no avoiding the inevitable change that must occur to breathe new life and hope into our civic process.
That change is the implementation of Congressional term limits.
While the act of imposing term limits on members of Congress certainly is not the end all, be all to find a solution to the abysmal, wretched, and partisan politics that have entrenched themselves in the confines of Washington D.C. it is certainly better than leaving it at the current status quo. A mire of demagogues and career politicians more concerned with legacy and being “right” than propelling the nation onward and upward with just and wise laws. This is not a defect of the human psyche or of the American lawmaker but a product of the system. A system which fosters tyrants and usurpers in the guise of Senators and Representatives. A system that encourages the quest to stay in power to garner more money, esteem, and gravitas rather than rewarding action and compromise and results. A system that invites lobbyists and external forces to latch on to those who gain power who will trade the very ideal and responsibility they so earnestly campaigned for to gain the promise of another successful campaign and all of the power that comes with it.
A system that we, as a nation, have outgrown. A system that, in the past, has led another great republic down the path to a destination that all Americans despise above any; Despotism.
What nation has traversed these very peaks and valleys of republic and democracy you ask? While the paths they trod have since been reclaimed by the wilderness of time it is, undoubtedly, in the trail blazed by the Roman Republic which the United States of America unwittingly finds itself sojourning along into the future.
Two nations, Roman and American, rising from a conglomeration of the exiled, the unwanted, the weak, the poor, but also the brave and the bold. Tossed into a melting pot where social alchemy produced a robust and ambitious people. Such an amalgam allowed both to overthrow the yoke of tyranny which had treated them as second class citizens. The Romans expelling their Etruscan rulers, the Tarquins, and the Americans breaking from their mother nation, England, and its sovereign King George III. It was in this moment of genesis, of birth, where the founding fathers of Rome laid the framework that, nearly 2300 years later, the founding fathers of America used to build their own nation.
It is no secret that the founders of the United States of America used Rome as a model. The study of classical history, both Roman and Greek, was very much en vogue in the middle-to-late 18th century and many of the leading statesmen that composed of America’s early congresses and legislative bodies were well educated in Roman and Greek history, philosophy, and politics. Even George Washington knowingly modeled his civic, military, and political career on that of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, one of Ancient Rome’s most celebrated statesmen who is still, to this day, held up as a paragon of civic duty and self control in the face of seizing total power. It is naive then to assume that the men who drafted the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution of the United States and everything in between were unaware of the great opportunity that lay before them. They knew that they have given birth to a nation so why not model it after a government which rose to unheard of power?
Here is where we can see why term limits were not imposed upon Congress from the onset. But, to truly understand where the philosophy behind the creation of the current United States government one must examine the Roman Republic more carefully.
What made Rome so unique, even to ancient historians, was its governmental structure. Rome had no obvious advantages in resources, its population was not overwhelming and it held no technological advances over the neighboring Latin and Etruscan tribes and communities. In essence, nothing about Rome was special other than its government. Drawing from their inherent contempt for kings, having driven out the Tarquins (the royal Etruscan family who originally ruled there), Rome sought to establish a new government, one in which all citizens, not just a few, contributed to the success of the state.
Drawing from the democracies and oligarchies which originated in Greece, Rome created if not the first, certainly the most impressive government which used a series of legislative bodies to establish a system of checks and balances. There were three primary legislative bodies establish in the Roman Republic’s constitution but our primary focus, for now, is an examination of two institutions inextricably linked; The Roman Senate and the American Congress.
First we shall examine the Roman Senate. Easily recognizable as a progeny of the oligarchical governments very prevalent at the advent of the Roman Republic, particularly in the Hellenic colonies and city states founded and, thus, tremendously influenced by Classical Greek culture in southern Italy and Sicily. The original Roman senate was composed of the leading families of Rome, most likely the most powerful, wealthy, and well educated of the Roman citizens at the time of the expulsion of the Tarquins in the mid 6th century BCE. The position was hereditary, passing from father to son. This adoption was almost certainly one born of necessity. Literacy, statecraft, and business acumen where arts that were simply unavailable to the average citizen not just in Rome but really the wider world of that time as well. As an emerging state these skills were at a premium and, couple that with the largely and widely held belief that the apple did not fall far from the tree it is not impossible to see why the Romans established the Senate to breed experienced and educated leaders drawn from what was considered the cream of the Roman citizenry crop.
Clearly, the Roman Senate’s parallel in the American system is our own Senate. The absence of the Senate seats being hereditary can most likely be attributed to the deep resentment towards monarchies and the almost total absence of oligarchies as a form of government by the time of the establishment of America. Furthermore, since many of the founding fathers were, as we discussed before, Classical scholars they most likely traced the downfall of the vaunted Roman Republic back to the Senate and its hereditary titles. A factor we will discuss further along. However, despite this key difference, the allure of the belief of a father’s (or mother’s) talents being passed on intact to their progeny is evident in the examples and numbers of persons elected to the Senate who had a relative serve. Families such as the Adams, Roosevelt, Kennedy, and, even more recently, the Bush families exemplify this point. In essence, the lack of term limits allows for hereditary propaganda to be perpetuated by the most powerful and influential American families. Sometimes for decades. In fact, one could argue they system effectively promotes such agendas.
It is at this point where I will tip my proverbial cap to the authors of the United States Constitution and their considerable political skill. They must have realized that the establishment of any hereditary title or entity was diametrically opposed to the very spirit behind their revolution. However, they also must have realized the need for experienced statesmen and, much like the early Roman Republic, the literate, educated citizen was far in the minority when the population of the new nation was considered. As such the pool for educated, qualified men who could step onto the political stage at the now global level was shallow. Imposing term limits on Congress ran the risk of depleting the qualified ranks which could have left the United States, in its infancy, at a considerable disadvantage.
Thus, it is unsurprising that the framers of the American government decided to leave the decision of when one was dismissed from their Senate seat to the voters instead of a lettered restriction. Indeed, the fear of being overwhelmed at the onset was such that even the most powerful office in this new American government, that of President, came with no term limits. If not for George Washington’s dazzling example, once again modeled after actions of the aforementioned Cincinnatus, who surrendered his dictatorial rights over Rome willingly, America’s early years could have been filled with much more strife and bloodshed. It’s important to note that even in Rome, the most powerful magistracy being that of Consul, was limited to a single year in office, could not be held again within 10 years and was one of two Consuls elected since, in the Roman government, a magistrate could veto the actions of any magistrate equal or below himself in rank or civic station. Meaning, in essence, no one office held unquestioned power. We can see now that it was a breakdown at the Consular level that almost certainly contributed to the downfall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire under the guidance of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, who, under the leadership of Caesar and then Augustus, abolished the Republic in all but name while serving as Consul but disregarding the ancient term limits placed upon that office.
It is at this moment that we can understand why both the American and Roman governments, in their respective infancies, chose to establish a Senate. Rome’s being inspired from its contemporary oligarchies and America drawing theirs from Rome and both sharing the same goal of cultivating a new breed of citizens that could step into the political spotlight to assert their independence, generate prosperity, and protect their citizens. Their nearly identical purpose is also accentuated by their nearly identical responsibilities. That of running the day to day affairs of the state, dictating foreign and military policy and directing domestic policy.
However, no matter how legitimate the reasons to adopt such a structure was in 509 BCE or in 1787 CE the simple truth is the reasons to not impose term limits are no longer valid. The pool of educated and accomplished citizens in the United States is at an all time high. Generally speaking, the citizenry of America have risen far above their ancient Roman counterparts in the aggregate and should be not be treated as the illiterate, vulnerable agrarian society from which we rose.
The idea that experienced Senators or Representatives should be re-elected for the sake of “stability” is utter stupidity and has been clearly disproven throughout American history. Much like how the Roman Senate devolved into individuals constantly scheming and plotting to garner as much glory, wealth, and esteem as possible, sometimes at the expense of the state’s welfare, so has the American Congress. Demagogues are elected again and again sometimes almost from inertia alone of being the incumbent no matter their record or accomplishments.
Look at the re-elections of Strom Thurmond, a notorious racist and bigot who’s backwards and offensive ideas were allowed to parade on Capitol Hill for nigh on sixty years and several presidential campaigns. Look at the election of Senator William Byrd who could barely form sentences or be understood occupying one of the most powerful civic positions in the country. Do those instances smack of men elected by their peers or of hereditary positions that will only be vacated by death? How is it possible that, with a government this dysfunctional, we could afford to have useless, obsolete, and ineffective members plodding about while national interests and issues go unresolved?
The fact is we have neither the inclination nor the time to rest on the laurels of our Founding Fathers anymore. That there are MILLIONS of qualified Americans frustrated and disenfranchised by their government. Legislators who are entrenched in the current political system of never ending terms at the head of political and lobbying machines. Padding their pockets to push agendas that are neither fresh or insightful but, instead, aspire to do nothing but deepening the partisan quagmire while effecting no change in a timely and effective fashion.
Can you imagine an America where quadruple or quintuple the amount of citizens could serve at the nation’s highest lawmaking body? The different experiences and points of view, the new dynamics and ideas, the refreshing and invigorating debates of Senators and Representatives that are no longer obsessed with their campaigns but instead focus on results and action? How much harder it would be for lobbyists to impact the system where they can no longer strive to keep their congressman in power for 10, 20, 30 years but instead must deal with constant cast of changing characters and personalities. Where your years in Congress matter not nearly so much as the bills you wrote, the votes you cast, and the compromises you brokered to help us advance instead of being another soldier in the monotonous trench warfare that the modern American political landscape seems to emulate.
Thomas Jefferson once said that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” While our third president’s meaning was sanguine in nature I choose to interpret it in a different context. That new lawmakers and participants in our government are the blood which will refresh and renew our tree of liberty. That those who prove unmovable or unwilling to compromise will reveal themselves to be tyrants and should be extricated from their position swiftly and surely by the tides of voters who suddenly realize they have an impact more than ever in a system they have so long looked at with disgust and anger.
A candle may burn for days and light a room but on that forest path, where we are now seemingly lost, traveling where our Roman inspirations once trod, a flare would be better suited to light our way. Bright, brilliant, and fleeting yet, if launched as legion, they could fall like so many stars, glittering through the branches and turning that dark, foreboding wood into a sylvan paradise shimmering in the deep night lighting our path out of the thickets and into a rolling, fertile plain lit by a new dawn.
The tools are there. In their foresight the founding fathers left in the Constitution the most powerful of abilities; that to change it. We only need to exercise the will and it can be done.
It can, and must be done and the time to do it is now.