May 30, 2012 – Essay #73 – Amendment XXII – Guest Essayist: James D. Best, author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and Principled Action, Lessons from the Origins of the American Republic
1: No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once. But this Article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President, when this Article was proposed by the Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this Article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.
2: This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission to the States by the Congress.
Amendment XXII: Reform or Revision?
Until 1940, presidents honored the George Washington precedent of serving for only two terms. In that year Franklin Roosevelt defied tradition and won a third term, then later a fourth term. Roosevelt died in office in 1945. Presidential term limits became a huge issue in the 1946 watershed election, and a new generation swept into office, many of them returning soldiers. The new congress was young, idealistic, and committed to change. One of their first priorities was the XXII Amendment, which was ratified by the states in early 1951. Since then, we have had eleven presidents, but so far only four have been restricted from another term by this amendment.
There have been many proposals to reform or revise the XXII Amendment. Congress has repeatedly submitted bills to repeal the amendment, but none has ever made it out of committee. Some have proposed that the restriction be revised to consecutive terms, and others want a super-majority of both houses to have the ability to override the restriction.
The XXII Amendment ought to be left in place without revision.
The president is often called the most powerful person in the world. To a great extent, that is true. Over the centuries, presidential power has increased enormously, both domestically and internationally. This was not the intent of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. The president was supposed to be a co-equal partner in a three-branch government focused on the needs of Americans.
The greatest increase in presidential power came from the growth in government. As the national government grew, from around 4 percent of gross domestic product in the 1920s to 25 percent in 2010, presidential power grew exponentially because all but a smidgeon of that money ended up in the executive branch. The bigger the national government grows, the more powerful the executive is as an individual.
In United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp (1936), the Supreme Court ruled that the president has almost unrestricted powers in international affairs. The Court said that this singular authority over foreign affairs is “the very delicate, plenary and exclusive power of the President as sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations—a power which does not require as a basis for its exercise an act of Congress.” One of the few exceptions to this exclusive power is Senate approval of treaties.
This ruling by itself did not make the president the most powerful person on the world stage. Three other developments made that happen. The first was that the American free enterprise system built the largest, most robust economy in the world. The second development was the vacuum of power after World War II. The Soviets were dangerous, and their ambitions for empire threatened the world. Someone had to step into the breach. The third development was the devastating power and global reach of modern weaponry.
Both inside and outside the United States, the president is enormously powerful. The Framers of the Constitution feared concentrated power, and they were especially fearful of concentrated power in single person. The Framers would have immediately searched for ways to curtail this power, and term limits would be at the forefront of their consideration. We need an ironclad XXII Amendment to bolster the idea that this power is only on loan for a limited period.
Power corrupts. Let us hope it takes longer than eight years.
James D. Best is the author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and Principled Action, Lessons from the Origins of the American Republic.