February 27, 2013
When the Constitution of the United States was ratified on June 21, 1788, it did not specify how many terms a person could remain in the various elected offices it defined. Since then we have determined only one federally elected office should be reined in.
Article II, Section 1, of our Constitution says:
“The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected as follows: …” And the Constitution defines how the states would appoint Electors, which could not be current members of Congress.
The authors were deliberately vague on the number of terms a President could serve, though Thomas Jefferson raised an objection that, particularly in George Washington’s case, the indeterminate language would likely result in lifetime service, and eventually into some version of inherited office.
Washington, who took office on April 30, 1789, set the tradition of serving two terms, when he declined to run for a third term in the election of 1796; he really did not want to serve a second term, preferring to return to his plantation. He lived less than three years after leaving office, dying on Dec. 14, 1799, when he was 67.
John Adams was defeated in his re-election bid; Jefferson did not run for a third term, and only Grover Cleveland of the subsequently re-elected presidents choose to run for a third term until Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for re-election in 1940. Cleveland ran for re-election in 1896, which would have been his third term, but was defeated; and FDR’s cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, who became President on Sept. 14, 1901, when William McKinley, who defeated Cleveland, was assassinated, also attempted to win a non-consecutive third term in 1912.
FDR was re-elected for a fourth term in 1944, which spurred Congress to pass the 22nd Amendment on Mar. 21, 1947.
The 22nd Amendment was ratified on Feb. 27, 1951, when Minnesota became the 36th state to approve the amendment. The amendment, which modifies Article II, Section 1, says:
“Section 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.”
There have been over 20 bills filed, by Republicans and Democrats, since the ratification to repeal the 22nd Amendment, the most recent by Rep. Jose Serrano, D-NY. All the bills have been referred to committee, where they apparently languish for support. There are no co-sponsors for Serrano’s bill, HJ-15.
The 22nd Amendment does not limit the number of terms a person may serve as Vice President, which creates a conflict if a two-term president was elected as vice president.
In March 1995, the last serious attempt to pass an amendment to limit Congressional terms failed in the House of Representatives; a majority of the Republican-controlled House voted for the bill, but far less than the 290 votes needed. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May 1995, that states could not impose term limits on their Congressional representatives.