(Posted May 18) President Barack Obama’s approval ratings have been edging upward for months. The national electorate is facing a general election to replace him involving two major party nominees with the highest negative ratings in decades. Wouldn’t it be better for the country if we just kept what we have a while longer? Couldn’t we re-elect our current president to a third term, and perhaps more than that?
Well, no. Everyone knows that a U.S. President is constitutionally limited to two four-year terms, and Obama’s second expires next January. It wasn’t always this way, of course. For the first 160+ years of our nation’s history, there was no cap on the length of a president’s tenure, provided he could keep getting re-elected. Nonetheless, no president chose to seek more than two terms until Franklin D. Roosevelt sought a third term in 1940, and then a fourth, in 1944.
Enter Earl C. Michener, a largely forgotten Michigan Congressman from Adrian. For those who decry the prospect of a Trump-Hillary Clinton match-up next November and curse the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, blame Earl. Long before Michigan voters in 1992 overwhelmingly approved one of the most draconian term-limit statutes for state officials in the country, Earl C. Michener paved the way with his efforts following World War II to ensure there would never be another four-term president.
Michener represented what was then called Michigan’s 2nd U.S. House district, consisting of Jackson, Lenawee, Monroe and Washtenaw Counties — and he held the seat for a long time. In fact, he was first elected to it as a Republican on Nov. 5, 1918, six days before the armistice that ended World War I, defeating a Democratic incumbent. With a single hiccup — he lost a re-election bid to Democratic challenger John Lehr in the 1932 FDR landslide before recapturing the seat two years later — he served 15 terms (30 years) before retiring in 1950.
But it was what he did on the first day of the 80th Congress, which convened on Jan. 3, 1947, that was important. That was the day he introduced House Joint Resolution 27, banning presidents from serving more than two full terms in office.
The backdrop to HJR 27 should be noted. Republicans in the 1946 election had scored a stunning sweep, capturing both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate for the first time since 1928. In that same election, farther down the ballot, the GOP had taken control of 26 state legislatures. During the Republicans’ 18-year exile from power, FDR had broken the “no third term” presidential tradition, winning his last re-election against Michigan-born (in Owosso) Thomas E. Dewey, the governor of New York.
Earl Michener was born in Ohio, but he and his parents moved to Michigan when he was 12, and he grew to manhood in Adrian. After graduating from high school, he served in the Spanish-American War as a private with Michigan’s 31st Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He later attended the University of Michigan and then graduated from what is now George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He then returned to Adrian to practice law and serve seven years in the Lenawee County prosecutor’s office, four of them as the elected prosecuting attorney. After ousting incumbent Democrat Samuel Beakes from his U.S. House seat in 1918, he served 13 terms before finding himself, with the new Republican House majority in 1947, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
HJR 27 was reported out of Michener’s Judiciary Committee as one of the panel’s first orders of business. On Feb. 6, 1947, after just two hours of debate, the full House voted on the resolution. No Republicans (and that number included freshman Richard Nixon) voted against it, and 47 Democrats joined them in voting “Yea.” Only 10 Democrats outside the “Old South” voted for the measure. Surprisingly, one of them was a freshman Democrat from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy — maybe the simmering feud JFK’s father had had with Roosevelt influenced his vote.
A constitutional amendment is required to be passed by both chambers of Congress by a two-thirds vote before being submitted to the states for ratification. The U.S. Senate added an amendment offered by Ohio’s Robert Taft to allow a president who had inherited the office for less than two years to be eligible for election twice to four-year terms after that. Then, on March 12, the Senate passed the resolution by the necessary 2/3 margin with substantial southern Democratic support. The House concurred in the Taft version of HJR 27. On March 24, the proposed amendment was filed with the new U.S. Secretary of State, George C. Marshall, who submitted it to the states for ratification.
Within a week, on March 31, 1947, Michigan became the second state to ratify the presidential term limit amendment, having been beaten to the punch by Maine by a matter of hours. The Michigan legislature in 1947 was overwhelmingly Republican, much more so than today. The size of the Senate was smaller than it is now — the margin there in favor of the amendment was 28R/4D, with no abstentions (that size increased to 34 members in 1954 and to 38 in 1964). The size of the House was also smaller — the margin in favor of HJR 27 was 95R/5D, with no abstentions (the House wouldn’t be increased to 110 districts until 1954).
Alaska and Hawaii were not yet states during this time period. Three-fourths of 48 states made 36 the “magic number” of states whose support was needed for ratification of the amendment, which took nearly another four years to achieve. The 36th state to ratify the measure was Minnesota, on Feb. 27, 1951, at which point it became the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Minnesota’s ratification came three years and 25 days before the seven-year deadline for ratification that was written into the text of the amendment.
Earl Michener, ousted from the House majority when Democrats recaptured control of the chamber in 1948, did not run for re-election in 1950. He had already resumed his private practice of law back in Adrian by the time Minnesota ratified the amendment. Michener died at the age of 80 on the Fourth of July, 1957.
Some Republicans have had second thoughts about the 22nd Amendment. After all, two of their most popular chief executives — GOP Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan — were both constitutionally ineligible to run for a third term. Only Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as Democrats have been similarly disqualified. Ironically, the late Michigan Republican Congressman Guy VanderJagt introduced a repeal amendment in every Congressional session from 1972 to 1991 without success, according to Bob LaBrant of the Sterling Corporation, who is an expert on this subject.
Perhaps fittingly, none of these VanderJagt efforts went anywhere — unlimited time in office for politicians just doesn’t seem to be “The Michigan Way.”