Goodman: Saving America, Part 1: Term limits

Published October 17 2017
Updated October 17 2017

The time has come to save America from a Congress that no longer acts, representatives who no longer represent and a system battered by special interests and broken by politicians interested only in themselves.

The path to salvation was revealed to us 25 years ago when a 19-year-old college sophomore in Austin, Gregory Watson, gave America a Texas-sized lesson about something our founding fathers anticipated and feared centuries before: an American Constitution that didn’t keep up with the times.

When writing the Constitution, James Madison and his disciples of democracy knew wielding power could succumb to untethered ambition. So, they wrote an article — Article V of the Constitution — providing "we the people" with an escape hatch if Big Brother ever created bigger problems: the power of amendment.

Madison wrote: "It guards against that extreme facility which would render the Constitution too mutable; and that extreme difficulty which might perpetuate its discovered faults." He wanted this living document to weather time by flexing with time.

To date, more than 11,600 constitutional measures have been proposed, 33 have passed congressional muster and 27 have been ratified. Watson led the fight for number 27, resuscitating a 200-year-old amendment proposed by Madison himself, forbidding Congress from approving pay raises for themselves until their next term. Want a pay raise? Sure, but if undeserved the voters may send you back to the farm.

Starting with nine states, and backed by a big-name senator from the small state of Maine, Watson pushed passage in 25 more state legislatures, with Michigan putting it over the top.

Watson understood civics 101, that there are two ways to pass any amendment: 34 state legislatures approve a measure originated in Congress, or 34 state conventions pass an amendment for Congress’ stamp of approval. The first option is top down, accounting for all 27 amendments so far. The other is bottom up, originating with the people and the states.

The time has come to choose door number two, the convention option, which Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers could protect us "against the encroachments of the national authority."

Article V not only gives us a pathway to address the many challenges Congress willfully ignores. It also can summon, organize and activate the greatest power on Earth: us.

Fueled by social media, and powered by collective frustration with the status quo, the American people can launch a second revolution to recapture the spirit that drove the first.

Cue "Saving America. Chapter One. Federal Term Limits."

Today, we have far too many individuals serving far too long who fall out of touch with the people they represent and the nation they serve. For more than two centuries we’ve had the power to change that.

The 22nd Amendment provides for a lifetime limit of two terms for America’s president. But there are no term limits for the Senate, the House or the Supreme Court. It’s time to refresh the batteries of democracy and restore public service to the selflessness of citizens putting country before themselves.

Here’s a remedy that would make Madison and Hamilton smile, and the American people cheer: limit members of the Senate to two six-year terms; members of the House to three four-year terms; and Supreme Court justices to one 12-year hitch on the nation’s highest court.

Do that, and at any given time half of the Senate will be members not seeking re-election who, like Sen. Bob Corker from Tennessee, won’t seek a permission slip from party pooh-bahs in choosing statesmanship over one-upmanship.

Do that, and over time Congress will have a similar dynamic where those closest to the people are motivated to do more for the people for the sake of the common good.

Do that, and instead of watching Supreme Court justices age in place, we’ll have a dynamic court that better understands the world of today rather than a world long past.

Why should we feel only a president can make a difference, when Watson proved one American citizen can make all the difference in the world, that any of us can stand up and use the Constitution to change the constitution of the American experience?

After all, it takes only one of us, not one of them, to light the spark to save the nation. One amendment at a time.

We don’t have to feel powerless any longer.

Adam Goodman is a national Republican media consultant based in St. Petersburg and the first Edward R. Murrow Fellow at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.