Let the People Rule

by Patrick J. Buchanan – January 28, 1995

This term limits movement has a whiff of revolution about it.
We want to overthrow America’s ruling class…

As the House and Senate mull over which version of “term limits” to write into a constitutional amendment, Republicans should realize this issue is now about more, much more, than term limits.

It is about power in America. It is about who decides. It is about whether America is still a country where we can boast, “Here, sir, the people rule.” It is about whether the people are to be allowed any role at all in shaping the institutions that govern them.

In the heart of the nation the issue is already decided. Term limits have won in almost every precinct where they have been put to the ballot. Twenty five million Americans have voted to impose them in 22 states. In 15 states, voters decided they want senators to serve only 12 years, House members no more than six.

According to polling data, of Americans favoring term limits, 82 percent would restrict House members to six years in office, and 45 percent would limit House members to only four years.

More than anything else, what ended the career of Speaker Tom Foley was the lawsuit he filed to overturn the decision of voters in his own state to impose term limits. “Foley vs. Voters,” they called it out in Washington.

“Foleyism,” a paternal “Father Knows Best” attitude of many elected politicians, may be contagious. For even the GOP is manifesting symptoms of that proven fatal disease.

Though Americans have spoken out loud and clear on the issue, some Republican leaders still make no secret of their contempt for term limits. Others promote a scheme to divide and dilute the term limits movement by allowing states to vote only on whether House members should be given 12 years. Others unsubtly hint that the need for term limits has passed, now that the issue had helped give the GOP what it always really wanted: Hill power.

Republicans ought to reflect on the message they will send if they go in the tank on a constitutional amendment, or enact one tailored to their own desires. If an amendment is approved for six terms for House members — rather than “Six years and out!” — the message to 15 states will be: “The only way you folks are going to get any term limits is to have your state legislature overturn the decision you made in that recent election and give us each a full 12 years.

Otherwise, no deal.”

The six-term amendment would be a signal the GOP ambition is to become, not the People’s Party, but rather the First Party of Government, America’s ruling party. In a day when America’s political class is held in deepening contempt, a party cannot be both.

The debate has gone beyond the wisdom or merits of term limits. That issue has been decided. The anti – term limits people have been defeated. The newer question is whether recalcitrants retain the power to frustrate the popular will. Will the Supreme Court and Congress even permit the people to impose term limits on Congress? That’s the issue now.

If the Supreme Court overturns the Arkansas term limits law, forbidding states from imposing term limits on their congressional delegations, and Congress refuses to send the states an amendment they want, the states and people will be left nowhere to turn — but against the government of the United States, in its entirety. For the U.S. government will have declared itself above the people.

The U.S. government will have said to the country: “You are too childish, too immature, to be making decisions of such magnitude. We in Washington have the sole claim to such decisions. We will decide, and we will impose a closed rule on any and all amendments we send you for ratification.”

The response will come in 1996, when the 104th Congress is given the same respectful treatment as the 103rd .

Behind the term limits movement is a radical populist call for a return to a “People’s House,” a House of Representatives where a third of the members are newcomers, and a third depart every two years, a body that reflects the nation, and the will of the people, as expressed in the last election, is manifest.

This term limits movement has a whiff of revolution about it. We want to overthrow America’s ruling class, it is saying: “We want to rid ourselves of professional politicians and replace them with citizen legislators.” Parties and people who get in the way of this movement are going to be run over by it.