With America's financial cathedrals crumbling around him, the billionaire mayor of its biggest city made a power play. Citing a desire to shepherd the country's economic hub through a period of crisis, Michael Bloomberg announced on Oct. 2 that he would ask the New York City Council to amend a 15-year-old law restricting Big Apple mayors to two terms in office. "We have planned for a slowdown in New York, but we may well be on the verge of a meltdown," he said by way of explanation. (See TIME's cover story on Michael Bloomberg here.)
Not everyone considers his business acumen fair justification for the decision. Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez told the New York Times the move was "un-American," while the city's comptroller called it "an attempt to suspend democracy." Bloomberg himself has supported term limits since taking office in 2002, and said he continues to favor them. "You're not taking away term limits. You're simply going from two terms to three terms," he said.
Bloomberg's reversal underscores why term limits inspire robust debate, as both proponents and detractors can claim their position upholds democracy's bedrock principles. Supporters say term limits hold politicians accountable, usher in fresh views that shake up static power structures, and mitigate an incumbent's advantages. Opponents argue that in addition to creating lame ducks, term limits snatch away the public's fundamental right to choose their elected officials.
Term limits have roots in ancient Greece, where beginning in the 6th century B.C. many Athenian officials were elected by random lottery and permitted to serve only a year. Some of their Roman counterparts were also limited to serving just a single term.
At the end of the 18th century, many of the framers of the fledgling United Statesthe first major modern democracyalso put stock in the idea. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were among those who considered term limits an important way to check individual power. In a 1787 letter to James Madison, Jefferson counted "the perpetual eligibility" of elected officials, and especially a chief executive, as one of two key elements of the proposed Constitution that he didn't like (the other being the absence of a Bill of Rights). But while the Articles of Confederation limited delegates to three-year terms, similar provisions were omitted from the Constitution. Still, George Washington stepped aside after his second term, setting an example thatthough it may have stemmed as much from fatigue as ideologylasted for nearly 150 years.
Franklin D. Rooseveltwho served from 1933 until his death in 1945was the first occupant of the Oval Office to serve more than two terms (he was elected to four). Like Bloomberg, Rooseveltwho helped America weather the Great Depression and accepted his nomination to a third term while war raged in Europe was viewed as a leader capable of navigating turbulent times. It wasn't an experiment many Republicans were intent on repeating, though, and in 1951, the 22nd Amendment codified the presidency as a two-term gig. A 1995 U.S. Supreme Court case, U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, held that states cannot set term limits for their Congressional representatives.
It's unclear whether New York City's term limits law, which was reaffirmed in a 1996 referendum, will ultimately be overhauledor whether an amendment is even in the popular mayor's best interest. History hasn't been kind to the city's third-term mayors, of whom there have been four; the most recent, Ed Koch, saw his popularity plummet during a tumultuous final term. A third Bloomberg administration would be forced to confront massive challenges, not the least of which would be steering the city through the fallout from Wall Street's implosion while coping with budget cuts. Even if Bloomberg secures a third term, there's no guarantee his legacy would emerge unscathed. We have an electoral system in place to throw bad politicians out of office; term limits, by contrast, can protect good ones from themselves.