Our Opinion: Want term limits? That will require a convention of states

A Wilson Times Co. editorial
Posted 1/22/19

Rep. George Holding and Sen. Thom Tillis say they want to work themselves out of a job.

The Republican pair sponsored legislation last week proposing a constitutional amendment that would limit …

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Our Opinion: Want term limits? That will require a convention of states

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Rep. George Holding and Sen. Thom Tillis say they want to work themselves out of a job.

The Republican pair sponsored legislation last week proposing a constitutional amendment that would limit lawmakers to two six-year Senate terms or six two-year terms in the House of Representatives.

“It’s time for elected officials to start making a difference, not a career,” Holding said in a news release announcing his House joint resolution to amend the Constitution. Holding represents North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes portions of Wilson, Nash, Johnston and Wake counties and the entirety of Franklin and Harnett counties.

Term limits, Holding says, will “put an end to politics-as-usual in Washington, help restore a citizen legislature and encourage elected officials to do what’s best for their constituents instead of special interests.”

Tillis, who co-sponsored legislation introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, said term limits will “bring long-needed accountability to members of Congress.”

The roiling government shutdown and border wall brinksmanship held the latest push for term limits to a faint puff of publicity. Even in calmer Washington seas, such quixotic bids no longer make waves. Resolutions triggering a term limit amendment are dead on arrival in a Congress still controlled by entrenched establishment figures — Senate leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican who’s been in office 34 years, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democratic lawmaker who’s served for 31 years.

It’s a shame these bills won’t generate any serious debate. Term limits are a popular concept — more than three-quarters of American voters support curtailing congressional service after a number of terms in office. The Constitution’s framers wanted a true citizen legislature where ordinary Americans would pause their primary careers for a temporary period of public service. They did not envision an elite enclave for professional politicians.

Thomas Jefferson lamented the Constitution’s absence of term limits. “The…feature I dislike, and greatly dislike, is the abandonment in every instance of the necessity of rotation in office, and most particularly in the case of the President,” he once wrote.

The 22nd Amendment, ratified in 1951, limited presidents to serving a maximum of two four-year terms. Another constitutional amendment is necessary to reform an insular, self-serving and relentlessly dysfunctional Congress.

Opponents counter that voters can impose term limits at the ballot box, but incumbency is a staggering advantage. Long-serving lawmakers rely on interest groups to stock their war chests and overwhelm low-information voters with campaign ads. Many a swashbuckling reformer riding a groundswell of grassroots support has lost out to the sheer inertia of one term leading to another.

If more than three in four Americans want term limits and Congress is loath to limit its members’ influence, how can the people hold their politicians in check?

Congressional approval is only one of two ways to advance a constitutional amendment. The other, a convention of states, bypasses the House, Senate and White House altogether.

A convention to propose constitutional amendments can occur with consent from a two-thirds majority of state legislatures, according to the Constitution’s Article V. If at least 34 of the 50 states agree to hold a convention, amendments can be put forth for ratification. Three-quarters of the states, or 38, must agree in order to amend the Constitution.

Term limits are already included on the punchlist of a populist movement called Convention of States Action, which is lobbying state legislatures across the country to pass resolutions to trigger a constitutional confab. A balanced budget amendment is also on the group’s agenda.

North Carolina lawmakers considered a convention of states resolution during the last biennial session, but the effort died in the House following 29-20 passage in the state Senate in the summer of 2017.

We applaud Holding and Tillis for backing term limits, but we’re not optimistic a floor vote will be held in either chamber. If they are sincere in their stated desire to pare back the length of congressional tenure, their energy may be better spent lobbying the General Assembly to add our state to the chorus of convention calls.

Convention of States Action says 12 states have passed resolutions authorizing a constitutional amendment convention. Could North Carolina become No. 13?