It has been said -- I have said it myself -- that there have been no truly necessary amendments to the Constitution since the 13th Amendment put an end to slavery in 1865. It is time to improve upon that record.
The Congress that has just assembled could correct an error that was made almost 40 years ago. Fifteen words would suffice: "The 22nd article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed."
That would put an end to a piece of foolishness that should never have been adopted. The 22nd Amendment says flatly that "No person shall be elected to the office of the president more than twice." This folly was the brainchild of vengeful Republicans who hated Franklin D. Roosevelt and wanted to send him an insult in the grave.
The legislative history suggests the animus behind the amendment. Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. Republicans took control of the 80th Congress as it convened on Jan. 3, 1947. Half a dozen term-limitation resolutions went immediately into the hopper. House Speaker Joe Martin, a Massachusetts Republican, sent word to the Judiciary Committee that he wanted prompt action. By the end of March, it was a done deal.
In a booklet just published by the National Legal Center for the Public Interest, Prof. Eugene W. Hickok Jr. of Dickinson College sums up the limited and partisan debate. Democrats charged the Republican majority with "Roosevelt-bashing." Republicans piously denied it. They said a two-term limitation was needed, as Rep. Leo Allen of Illinois put it, to protect the people from the oppression of dictatorships.
In the end, not a single Republican in either chamber voted against the resolution. It went out to the states for ratification and became part of the Constitution on Feb. 27, 1951.
Since then almost no one in public life has had a good word to say for it. Harry Truman, who originally had supported the idea, changed his mind completely. Testifying in favor of repeal in 1959, Truman spoke with the voice of experience.
"What have you done? You have taken a man and put him in the hardest job in the world and sent him out to fight our battles in a life and death struggle -- and you have sent him out to fight with one hand tied behind his back, because everyone knows he cannot run for reelection . . .
"He is still the president of the whole country, and all of us are dependent upon him to do his job. If he is not a good president, and you do not want to keep him, you do not have to reelect him. There is a way to get rid of him, and it does not require a constitutional amendment to do the job."
Harry Truman might have had little in common with Ronald Reagan, but on this issue the two presidents held identical views. In a brief essay prepared for the National Legal Center's publication, Reagan puts the matter bluntly.
"The two-term limitation is, in theory, a perversion of the Constitution's sound design for a limited but energetic government. In practice, it has proved to be a disaster, nothing less than an ill-placed thumb on the scales of government in favor of congressional power, thus upsetting the carefully contrived system of checks and balances for which the founders so wisely provided.
"The result of the amendment has been twofold: it has undermined necessary presidential power to conduct the great public business assigned to that office, while simultaneously denying the people their most hallowed democratic right of having whomever they desire hold their offices for as long as the people desire."
Reagan makes the point that the essence of the presidency is not management, in the sense that a city manager does his municipal job. The essence is "leadership, pure and simple, in the old-fashioned sense of that word." But the moment a president begins his second term, his leadership diminishes. He falls victim to lame-duckery. The actuality of power yields to the mere appearance of power. Leaders in Congress, not subject to term limitation, look impassively upon a president. They figure they can wait him out.
Now that Capitol Hill has come alive again, we may expect resolutions of constitutional amendment on a balanced budget, abortion, school prayer, the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and heaven knows what else. Forget them. In this field, Congress could act most constructively not by adding amendments, but by setting in motion the process for taking one away.
1991, Universal Press Syndicate