Monday, January 19, 2009

The Abolition Of Term Limits In The United States

(Note - as this post concerns American politics, I cannot resist saying that I am not now, nor have I ever been, The Devil's Kitchen. Childish, I know; but still fun)
DK's link to Jose Serrano's motion calling for the repeal of the 22nd Amendment, that clause of the Constitution which limits the number of terms a president can serve to two, brings to mind an incident that occurred in October 2008 which, if memory serves, was little remarked upon over here.
With the grotesque insolence of a man accustomed to power, Michael Bloomberg asked New York's city council to abolish the term limits restricting his tenure as Mayor. His rationale for so doing was that he was 'the only man' who could help New York through the financial crisis, and, er, his record in office had been so good, so stunningly brilliant, that he should just be allowed to keep on truckin'. The honourable aldermen, the heirs of George Washington Plunkitt, many of them perhaps conscious that they too would soon be term-limited, actually agreed.
"This is the way of the future. Like Tony Blair, like Gordon Brown, Michael Bloomberg believes that he is so special, a person of such unique talent, that his services cannot be dispensed with, so he will do or say anything to keep power.

If Giuliani could step down after blood had been spilled on the streets, Bloomberg can step down after blood has been spilled on the carpets.

And if anyone thinks that an Obama White House wouldn't seek to abolish term limits for the presidency, they don't have much insight into the sainted one; and he'll have the whopping majorities in both the House and the Senate that he'll need to do it. "
What is shocking about Serrano's motion is that his desire to ensure that the White House becomes Democrat occupied territory, like, forever, is so great that he couldn't even wait for Obama to be sworn in before making his move. Serrano's official biography shows him to be a bit more West Side Story than Babbitt, but it contains the following gem -
"As an appropriator, Serrano has managed to secure millions of dollars in federal funding for his Bronx Congressional District. He has directed funding to countless local initiatives, including environmental projects, improvements to Bronx parks, educational programs for disadvantaged students and displaced workers and funding for various local charitable organizations, whose goals range from providing access to the arts to developing small businesses. "
To use the noun 'appropriator' to describe oneself is revealing. He takes; end of story. By his own admission, Jose Serrano sits in the Congress of the United States in order to hold the taxpayers of Boise, Idaho to ransom so that the Grand Causes of midnight baseball and tarting up the Bronx might be advanced. He might not be enriching himself, but he's still using others' money to get what he wants, which is continual re-election. The ghost of George Washington Plunkitt thus still walks New York City, the Big Apple rotten to its core.
Yet he's not alone. The former Klansman Robert Byrd once remarked that the four best friends West Virginia had ever had were God, Sears Roebuck, Carter's Liver Pills and Robert Byrd. Byrd once also remarked that you could insult his wife all you like, but don't dare touch a dime of the West Virginia roads budget. On January 3 2009, at the age of 91, Robert Byrd became the first person to serve in the US Senate for 50 straight years. His career is a rebuke to Americans who deride the Chinese Communists as a gerontocracy. If Byrd had been term limited out in 1971, then untold billions of dollars would have stayed in the pockets of Americans.
Term limits are a uniquely American political innovation. The 22nd Amendment was passed in order to prevent a repeat of FDR's four terms. Say what you like about him (and many on the American right do), history has shown that, on the whole, FDR was an alright kind of guy who had America's best interests at heart. They might not always have aligned with ours, but that wasn't his problem.
Yet even then it was recognised that the Presidency had mutated into something the drafters of the Constitution never intended it to be - the focus of great power, not a relatively small cog in a small wheel. That was why the 22nd Amendment was enacted. The Founders' worst fears about actually having a president were realised not long after FDR's death, when Truman sidestepped the Constitution altogether in order to enter the Korean War. That he did so with popular support made his actions no less illegal, and showed that the 22nd Amendment had been a very good idea.
The American right has always talked big on term limits, but has never delivered. They have been as corrupted by power and office as surely as the Democrats. The Gingrich Republicans who signed the 'Contract with America' sort of lost their commitment to the idea of giving up power once they got their hands on it - of the 1994 intake of Republican Congressmen, I've been able to find only one, Governor Mark Sanford, who later stood down voluntarily. This is a gunfight with no white hats.
Term limits ensure that fallible individuals cannot become accustomed to holding power. How British history might have been different if we had had them. When the fallible become accustomed to holding power, they develop the insolence and arrogance of Michael Bloomberg.
Serrano de Bergerac might justify what he does by saying it's for 'the people' - if he does, just watch his nose get longer and longer. Yet 'The People' whose spirit is invoked by all megalomaniacs are already represented in the American consitutional model - they are 'We, The People', the source of all temporal American power. He who forgets that, forgets America.
The concentration of power in the hands of a group of individuals with the right to limit entry to their club is an invitation to tyranny. It's now beyond dispute that the British political class has an unshakeable, and profoundly unhealthy, belief in its own exceptionalism - what is extremely disheartening about the actions of Michael Bloomberg and Jose Serrano is that they reveal that despite the best intentions of some of the finest political thinkers the world has ever seen, America has at last developed a political class of its own. Serrano and Bloomberg would feel right at home with their 19th Century homeboy, Elbridge Gerry.
As old Ben Franklin remarked, America was 'a republic, if you can keep it'. He had Jose Serrano in mind.

10 comments:

Gareth said...

Utter shits, most definitely. Term limits would be useful here to get those troughing welfare parasites out every now and then. No dogmatic knee-jerking on the back benches for a quarter of a decade after 5 minutes of your hands on the steering wheel.

It all becomes even more disagreeable with the return of Mandleson. Who vote for him? He has no democratic mandate. We simply live in an elected dictatorship.

Blue Eyes said...

Why should there be term limits? If the voters don't want the mayor or president or PM anymore they can vote him/her out at the next election. Term limits basically deprive the voters of the opportunity of voting for or against people on the basis that they have been incumbent for a certain time. How is that democratic?

julymorning said...

History speaks for itself: popular acclaim often leads to tyranny or dictatorship. Just as there are checks on elected representatives, there must be checks on the electorate.

tomfinnie said...

Obama has no chance of passing such an amendment, assuming he even wants too. The democrat's don't have supermajorities of either house, and are nowhere near to controlling 38 states.

Gareth said...

Blue Eyes,

The system should encourage voting for someone who best represents your views, as opposed to encouraging voting against the incumbent. If that's the best choice we get no wonder the public is utterly cynical about politicians and that politicians have tended towards weasel wording scum.

Some means of destroying the party machine would help as well. The whips have made hay at our expense.

Anonymous said...

Even if term limits are removed (which is highly unlikely), you're a fool if you think this means the White House will become "Democrat occupied territory".

I'm afraid you don't know very much about US politics, Marvin.

Lola said...

Harold Wlson had the same sort of thinking - " Because I am right anything I do that keeps me in power is right".

Anonymous said...

You should take a look at FDR's activities during the 20's, he ran a vulture fund on Wall Street and was involved in dodgy bond sale . Needless to say most of his biographer's ignore this period of his life. He was the bankers friend, the bankers friend always wins the presidency.
Don't worry about term limits, tyranny follows democracy.

Anonymous said...

I'm at a loss - I don't know whether to laugh or cry at the ignorance on display in this piece.

How can you possibly suggest that Franklin quote would have been horrified at the prospect of an end to term limits? In Franklin's time, my ill-informe papist friend, there were no limits - the limits were not introduced until 1947.

The term limits are a very recent innovation which no constitutional purist would view as anything other than modern tinkering.

Moreover, in insisting that no country is democratic unless they have a two-term limit (which is what you're doing), you're explicitly stating that there is no democratic country on this planet except the post-1947 USA.

This is a fine blog but every time you post on it, Martin, you degrade it. You cheapen it by shooting your mouth off about things you clearly have no understanding of.

Anonymous said...

Just to note (for those who are US-Constitutionally-challenged) that an amendment to the US Constitution does not merely have to pass the US House and Senate, but must also be ratified by a super-majority of State legislatures. So, while President-to-be Obama's current House and Senate majorities would make that part of the process of repealing the 22nd Amendment easier, that's only the beginning of a long process which can and does take years and which is not nearly so much of a slam-dunk. I doubt he'll burn much of his diminishing political capial on trying to do that.

llater,

llamas