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.



Anonymous Lewis Walsh said...

The current state of affairs in Washington is predominately the fault of voters. But, in their defense, I must tell you that many suffer from having been poorly educated in our fragmented educational system and, they work harder and longer than populations in other advanced countries. Time for them to study important issues is fleeting.

The US is in dire need of radical change. I have concluded that the only plan that has some possibility for success in returning the government to the people and getting rid of the corrupt Democrat/Republican duopoly and their sponsors is the citizen imposed federal term limits - Six Years and Out movement.

Legislators are unlikely to approve legislation that would limit terms of office. And, if such a law were to pass, the Supreme Court is likely to strike it down. We can clean up the mess in Washington if we individually take action to limit congressional terms. The most skillful and the most unethical of the permanent political class can not stop action taken by the Six Years and Out movement because it is citizen imposed; we need no legal or judicial concurrence.

Six Years and Out will make for easier decisions, and at the very least, it will prevent the entrenchment of the sorry bunch that are passing for statesmen these days. I think that Six Years and Out can also encourage legislators to act in the public interest rather than to gage every issue in terms of their own reelection.

Six Years and Out, The Pledge:

With the recognition that there are huge numbers of intelligent, talented and qualified citizens who are prepared to limit their public service. I hereby pledge that I will not vote a second term for any United States Senator and no more three terms for any United States Congressman.

12:22 PM  
Anonymous Gollum said...

lewis - Thanks for the comment. I like the idea of a pledge up to the point that it would require me to choose a moron over a competent candidate who happens to be an incumbent. I can go so far as to say that I'll vote preferentially for a freshman candidate - - and I do that already - - but I can readily think of a few candidates from past congressional elections that I would not vote for, period, freshmen or otherwise.

7:28 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home