Three Cheers for the 22nd Amendment

by Burt on February 3, 2012

Let’s set the stage. FDR had just died after being elected to four terms as president. He broke the two-term tradition set by George Washington, and did so by using crises and federal subsidies to marshall votes on his behalf. In 1946, when the Republicans finally re-captured Congress, they began work on term limits for the president. Sure, they knew that an Eisenhower or Reagan might come along later, but they agreed with George Washington’s notion that two terms as president was enough for any man, and that the U.S. republic was sufficiently blessed with talent to provide suitable replacements for popular presidents.

Thus Congress passed, and the states endorsed, the 22nd amendment: No president after Harry Truman could hereafter be elected for more than two terms.

Congress acted wisely. However, FDR had already opened the federal spigots for unprecedented spending on New Deal programs targeted to key voting groups and swing states. With such vast new power in the executive branch, presidents by the 1940s could funnel massive funds for roads, schools, city-improvement, and much more in key states needed to win elections. All of that federal aid–which had been orchestrated shrewdly by FDR–was contrary to the Constitution. Previous presidents had to depend more on the wisdom of their policies, not the distribution of tax dollars to secure re-election. Even George Washington himself, when he suggested federal funding for an American university, was rebuked by Congress because no such provision for federal funding of schools existed in the Constitution.

All of this is not to suggest term limits would be wise to impose on other elected officials. The authority, say, of a U.S. Senator is much less threatening to our republic than that of a powerful president with oceans of tax dollars at his disposal. Presidents thereafter would come and, happily, go after no more than eight years. Thus, no teeth-gritting Republican today need fear a grasping President Obama at the end of this decade.

When the U.S. adopted the 22nd amendment, after the dangerous precedent set by FDR, Congress and the states guaranteed that whatever infringements presidents might make on future liberties, our nation would not lapse into one man rule.

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