Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Some Thoughts About Term Limits

I have been thinking about term limits of late, for no good reason. For a long time I thought term limits were a good idea. The principal argument in favor of term limits seems to be Senator Kennedy of Massachusetts, who has represented - - to use the term loosely - - that state in the U.S. Senate for 43 years. Not that anyone's counting. (Well, he is. The figure comes from his website.)

Not that term limits are not in vogue these days. Republicans took control of the 104th Congress based in part on promises to enact term limits. Item 10 of the famous "Contract with America" was a vote on a Citizen Legislature Act. But differences developed, no measure was immediately passed, and support for term limits drastically wained.

That's somewhat understandable. The chief complaint of term limit proponents is that incumbents are virtually invulnerable, all but guaranteed re-election. An election that sweeps legislators out of office tends to disprove the point, even if - - paradoxically - - it is based on a partial promise to elect term limits.

Opponents to term limits chiefly claim the device is "undemocratic" because it deprives the electorate of the right to elect the person they desire to represent them. It is true that term limits have such an effect, but the argument can't carry the day. There are many other limitations on our right to elect indiviudals to represent us, and that does not render the system "undemocratic." We cannot, for example, elect a twelve year old to the US Senate, no matter how precocious. We cannot elect Arnold Schwarzenegger to the presidency, no matter how enamored we are of his Austrian akzent. And we cannot elect George W. Bush to a third presidency, even if we did get a kick out of the French calling us stupid when we elected him last time. The consititution contains such limitations, because we have determined - - at points in the past - - that in some cases the limitation works for the overall good. The question, of course, is whether the achieved good outweighs the sacrifice.

A second common argument is that term limits result in inexperienced legislators. That's true, and that's precisely the point. From a purist standpoint, if there is a system in place - - devised by those who have been around the longest - - which benefits those who have been around the longest, then those district sending a junior representative are effectively deprived of the entirety of their representation. That is to say, a representative who has been around longer has more of a vote in Congress than a representative who has not, even though they both have the same nominal vote. And THAT strikes me as more undemocratic than a simple limit on terms.

Nonetheless, I am against term limits as the principal fix for the problem they intend to address - - namely, career politicians. The arguments against term limits should not foreclose their use, but they should make term limits a device of last resort. A term limit presupposes that the result to be avoided is an otherwise valid result, and my guess is that's not true. Term limits should not be a band-aid to address the more salient problems of campaign finance reform, limitations on gerrymandering, and addressing the general sense that elections are no longer about a debate of ideas but are little more than an extensive marketing campaign.