Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Defining Terms


Last January, Congressman José Serrano, Democrat of the 15th District of New York, introduced a joint resolution to repeal the 22nd Amendment of the Constitution, thereby removing the two-term limit on the office of President of the United States.

Serrano, who represents a small, densely populated, fiercely Democratic section of the Bronx, encompassing Yankee Stadium and the Bronx Zoo, has introduced his resolution in every term since 1997. But that didn’t prevent certain outlets from stoking the fears of certain readers that a certain incumbent was conspiring to secure a lifetime appointment. (“King Obama?” a Fox Nation editorial warned.)

The controversy, to the extent there was one, was isolated to the fringe. The concept of removing presidential term limits is about as nonpartisan as it is fanciful. Mitch McConnell, the Republican senator from Kentucky, introduced a similar resolution in 1995, during the presidency of Bill Clinton. Harry Reid, the Democratic senator from Nevada, introduced one in 1989, just after the inauguration of George Bush. The idea was never Obama’s, and anyway, the bill, like its predecessors, was going nowhere.

Then, last week, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Jonathan Zimmerman, a history professor at NYU, suggesting that an end to presidential term limits might be a cure for Obama’s second-term woes. After tallying complaints in the President’s own party over the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act and the Iran nuclear deal, Zimmerman proposed that the “fervent objections” might be a consequence of the constitutional deadline on Obama’s tenure. If Obama could run again, he wrote, then “Democratic lawmakers would worry about provoking the wrath of a president who could be reelected. Thanks to term limits, though, they’ve got little to fear.”

Like other questions of national interest—unfunded pensions, government borrowing, failing public schools—the question of whether term limits help or hurt democracy has found a local corollary in Harrisburg. Two days before the Zimmerman op-ed, City Council President Wanda Williams offered a bill proposing to limit the office of Harrisburg mayor, which is currently unrestricted, to two terms. The bill cites several motives, including “returning elected officials to the masses to be those governed by their laws,” “ensuring transparency in government,” and encouraging “diversity and inclusion” among candidates for office.

At council’s legislative session, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Williams elaborated. She had developed the idea, she said, through conversations with other members of the Pennsylvania Municipal League, a nonprofit group that advocates for sound local government. She believed the term-limit question was “an important discussion” in the wake of the 28-year tenure of former Mayor Stephen Reed. Also, her proposal had nothing to do with the results of November’s election. “I look forward to working with Mr. Papenfuse,” Williams said, “and would like to have Mr. Papenfuse’s input as well.”

Some of the bill’s language, particularly the part about opening the office to “inclusion,” may seem a touch disingenuous, especially in light of Williams’ own election in November to her third four-year term. But council has other checks that the mayor’s office lacks. Council’s meetings are public, and its bills are discussed publicly weeks or months before passage. Its members have careers outside city hall, and they typically make themselves directly available to citizens and the press, while the mayor—with the exception of press conferences—fields inquiries through her chief of operations and conducts business in closed offices.

Williams’ bill was referred to committee, and it will probably not rear its head again til next year. Her mention of the Pennsylvania Municipal League, though, did yield a point of comparison. A spokeswoman for the league said that, while the organization holds meetings and trainings throughout the year, she was not aware of any formal presentation on term-limit legislation. But the day before last week’s council session, Williams did attend a league board meeting at the Harrisburg Hilton, where, in the course of other business, the group bid farewell to two members who were leaving because—you guessed it—they’d reached their term limits.

One of those members was Chuck Christy, a member of the city council of West Chester, a borough outside Philadelphia. Christy, who owns a geothermal drilling business, has served on West Chester’s council for the maximum eight years. He sits next to Williams at the Municipal League’s board meetings but was surprised to learn about her bill.

“I used to think term limits were a great idea,” he said earlier this week. “But then when it affects you…I guess that’s selfish, huh.” He said it took time to learn the ropes of budgeting and working with labor contracts, and added that, at a level where council campaigns cost a couple hundred dollars, term limits are probably “not necessary.” His constituents, under West Chester’s ward system, are 1,800 of his neighbors. If he’d begun to represent them poorly, he said, they’d have thrown him out of office.

There are further checks on government, in West Chester as in Harrisburg, than the lengths of officials’ terms. Among them are a balance of powers, a scrutinizing press, and of course, an engaged populace. Term limits won’t make all the difference, but the desire they express, for more accountable government, might.

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