August 27th, 2007 15:52 EST
Prevent Dictatorships, Term Limits Help
Washington – Even as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez seeks to change Venezuelan law that, in effect, could make him that country’s “president for life,” a similar scenario for a U.S. president is regarded as highly unlikely.
The 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits an American president from serving more than two full four-year terms in office. In contrast to what is occurring in Venezuela, sporadic attempts to repeal the American law have been unsuccessful.
Supporters of a repeal face formidable obstacles, Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told USINFO August 24. She said that even if the U.S. Congress voted for repeal, the American constitutional amendment process requires that three-fourths of the legislatures of the 50 U.S. states must give their assent as well.
Tenpas said she sees pros and cons to overturning the amendment. On the one hand, she said, a president facing re-election is more accountable because he or she cares about winning another term in office.
But the prospect of re-election “creates incentives that are not always in the best interest of good government,” Tenpas said. She cited the example of presidents doling out excessive grants to states or congressional districts that put the chief executive in a better position to win votes from those constituencies.
Tenpas added that another U.S. law, one which requires U.S. presidents to have been born in America, also is unlikely to be overturned, despite arguments raised by backers of such foreign-born officials as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. His supporters say the Austrian native should be allowed to run for the White House.
John Fortier, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, supports repealing the presidential term-limit law. Sitting U.S. presidents would be more effective at gaining enactment of legislation in a second term if they did not have to reveal their plans on whether they are running for a third term, especially if they are popular with the American electorate, said Fortier.
But he added that attempts to overturn the amendment might be moot.
“I think very few presidents [in the United States] would either want, or be able, to serve three terms” or beyond, Fortier said. His problem with term limits, Fortier said, is that they make second-term presidents “lame ducks” with no political future. That fact damages their ability to move legislation through the U.S. Congress.
The only U.S. president to serve beyond two terms was Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, first elected in 1932, who remained in office until his death in April 1945.
Roosevelt’s long tenure in the White House prompted the opposition Republican Party to pursue passage of the 22nd Amendment in 1947, with the law going into effect in 1951. The rationale for the amendment was that it would prevent future presidents from attempting to claim dictatorial powers.
America’s first president, George Washington, could have stayed in office “for as long as he wanted to,” Fortier said, since at the time the United States had no term-limits law and the highly popular Washington would have faced virtually no opposition. But after two terms, Washington returned in 1797 to his farm in Virginia.
U.S. law also stipulates that no two-term U.S. president can be elected again for the White House even if the term is not consecutive. This means, for example, that a two-term president such as Bill Clinton who left office in January 2001 is ineligible to make another White House run, as is George W. Bush even if he waited four years after he leaves office in January 2009.
REPEAL MEASURES IN U.S. HOUSE
Representative Steny Hoyer, the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, has pushed for measures to repeal the 22nd Amendment.
The Democratic congressman from Maryland, who has received backing on his measure from some Republicans, says that in a democracy “the public ought to have the opportunity to retain or reject" politicians.
Hoyer said in April 2005, when he introduced a congressional resolution on repeal, that overturning presidential term limits would restore to the American people “an essential democratic privilege to elect who they choose in the future.” Hoyer has introduced his measure in several sessions of the House of Representatives but it received scant congressional backing.
In Venezuela, that country’s parliament has given initial approval to Chávez’s move to amend the 1999 constitution, which currently allows the head of state to serve only two successive six-year terms. Opponents say the change would lead to “dictatorship” and that Chávez is attempting to “stay in power for life.”
For more information, see the full text of the 22nd Amendment to U.S. Constitution, and Democracy and Governance.
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
By Eric Green
USINFO Staff Writer