Commentary: Burchett Grandstands on Term Limits

February 8, 2021 4:00 am


In his latest constituent newsletter, East Tennessee Congressman Tim Burchett brags about his co-sponsorship of House Joint Resolution 12, a proposed constitutional amendment for term limits.  He is joined in this effort by U.S. Rep. Diana Harshbarger, a freshman representing District 1 at the eastern end of our state.

Regardless of one’s opinion of term limits, however, this particular effort is little more than a disingenuous stunt.  Burchett fails to mention the proposal is a constitutional amendment—meaning it would require a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate, plus a favorable vote from three-fourths of the state legislatures, a near impossibility.

The proposed amendment would limit congressmen to three two-year terms and U.S. Senators to two six-year terms.  The amendment also has a “get out of hypocrisy free” card in its closing section.  It reads, “No term beginning before the date of the ratification of this article shall be taken into account in determining eligibility for election or appointment under this article.”

U.S. Rep. Diana Harshbarger, R-TN 2 (Photo: U.S. House of Representatives)
U.S. Rep. Diana Harshbarger, R-TN 1 (Photo: U.S. House of Representatives)

If Burchett were serious about term limits, he simply would pledge that his 2022 re-election campaign would be his last.  For Harshbarger, her co-sponsorship also comes with little political risk.  She won a 16-person Republican 2020 primary with just 19.2 percent of the vote, and won the general election because the area is heavily Republican.  There is a strong possibility establishment Republicans will unify behind one 2022 challenger.

This term limits amendment is sponsored by South Carolina Republican Ralph Norman who took office in June 2017.  As of late last week, it had 52 co-sponsors, all Republicans and overwhelmingly white males.  Ten of the co-sponsors, under the six-year (three term) limit within the proposal, no longer should be in Congress.  My favorite is Frank Lucas of Oklahoma.  He first took the congressional oath of office at the start of 2003.  If the amendment he supports had been in effect, he should have been term-limited out of Congress at the dawn of 2009 in the closing weeks of the George W. Bush administration.

Other co-sponsors include Alabama’s Mo Brooks, South Carolina’s Jeff Duncan, and Arizona’s David Schweikert, who all started congressional careers in January 2011.  Thomas Massie of Kentucky has been there since Nov. 6, 2012.  Ann Wagner of Missouri and Richard Hudson of North Carolina both started in 2013.  Long Island’s Lee Zeldin, Georgia’s Rick Allen, and Colorado’s Ken Buck joined Congress at the start of 2015.  Under the terms of the proposal they supposedly support, all should now be former congressmen.

If Burchett were serious about term limits, he simply would pledge that his 2022 re-election campaign would be his last. 

Term limits played a key role in my 2006 to 2010 service as a Knox County Commissioner.  I ran for office against and defeated an incumbent who served two terms. Thus, under the clear meaning of the term limits local voters overwhelmingly put in the county charter, he should have been term limited and not on the ballot.  A bi-partisan group of long-term office holders, however, had crafted excuses to avoid term limits—first arguing that counties with charters could not impose term limits, then contending the charter itself was so flawed that it and the term limits must be tossed.

Once all those charades finally were defeated in courts, Knox County Commission was given the task of appointing replacements for eight county commissioners ousted by term limits, plus four local elected fee office holders.  Those appointments were done so ham-handedly in violation of the state open meetings law that the actions, known locally as Black Wednesday, were voided by a “sunshine” lawsuit and had to be done again.

The lessons to be learned from that 2007 Knox County experience are that term limits should be approached with seriousness of purpose, and respect for the will of the voters.  Burchett’s feckless braggadocio meets neither of those criteria.

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Mark Harmon
Mark Harmon

Mark Harmon is a professor of journalism and media at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.