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Do we need Term-Limits?                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Jun/09/2010 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Politics & Gov,

In this day and age of political frustration Term Limits regularly boils to the top of public debate. I have mixed feeling about the entire matter and on a fundamental basis view term limits as ridiculous. Think about it, term limits are intended to force regular replacement of “elected officials”. If these people are elected, can’t we get rid of them any time we want by simply voting them out? The debate over term limits is obviously fired by a general dissatisfaction and distrust with government and elected officials. I have accumulated as many of the arguments on both sides of the debate as possible and will present them here. Who knows, maybe a logical solution will come to the surface.

Here are some of the popular arguments favoring Term Limits that I have heard:

- Voters overwhelmingly prefer term limits.
Whenever statewide term limits is on a ballot, it wins overwhelmingly. This phenomenon may be due to the voter's frustration with the status quo, but in a democratic system, the will of voters is not supposed to be ignored. In the 23 states that have the Initiative Process (where voters can petition to place issues on the ballot), 21 states have voted for and won statewide term limits. Whenever politicians have tried to end term limits, they have been resoundingly defeated, and repeatedly so.

- Term Limits favor meritocracy and downgrades seniority.
The unlimited term model creates a need in the legislature for a seniority system. Many argue that in a seniority based system mediocre politicians often thrive. If a mediocre politician can be reelected a few times, they then earn the 'right' (by seniority, not by merit) to serve in important committees and chairmanships. Once in these powerful positions they would wield sufficient power, media exposure, and name recognition to enhance their chances for additional reelection successes. The reelection success would be based more on this same media exposure and name recognition than actual accomplishment. Getting reelected does not necessarily indicate an abuse of power and position. Remember that these individuals must have had some popularity to get elected in the first place. If they have done their job well, why wouldn’t their recognition grow?

- Term limits increases competition, encourages new challengers.
Seniority systems now in place in Congress discourage truly talented individuals from running for office, because even though they can win, they know they will have to wait years before they will get any recognition for their bills, or a seat on a good committee (much less a chairmanship!). It should be noted that a freshman congressman recently became President so I am a little challenged to buy into this argument. With term limits in force, all legislators will be relatively new arrivals, and therefore seniority will be meaningless. Merit will become the selection method of choice.

- Term limits will build a ‘citizen’ Congress, vs career or 'professional' politicians.
After a few years of term limits, both voters and politicians will recognize that the legislature is made up of “real people”, not just ‘career politicians’, and the quality of legislation by a 'citizen Congress' will begin to change for the better. As most people running for public office begin their political careers due to an inspiration or cause that is important to them, we would see more of these grass roots motivations driving public policy.

- Breaks ties to special interests.
The breaking of the potential cozy connections between long tenured politicians and their various special interests and lobbying organizations will force those interests to try to reconnect with a new breed of legislator who is not a career politician, but one who thinks differently, and more often with common sense and integrity, and is less often concerned with reelection. An interesting argument that assumes lobbyist relationships only favor reelection. I suspect for a lobbyist any available politician will do.

- Improves tendency to vote on principle, vs special interest support.
A substantial number of these new legislators will be ordinary people who do not intend to make a life in politics, but who want to improve the system. It is believed (hoped) that these people would be a “new thinking” breed of politician as they would be returning to private life to live under the changes they have enacted. There would be less opportunity for the exchange of favors such as ('If you vote for my pork, I'll vote for your pork')

- Introduces fresh thinking, new ideas, eliminates the 'old bulls'.
The large number of new legislators will introduce a breath of fresh air into the halls of Congress, in which the old habits of the legions of Congressional staff and department bureaucrats will face considerable skepticism and questioning about “This is the way we’ve always done it!” Common sense will get new life in legislation. It should be noted that the effect of “a breath of fresh air” may be very difficult to measure.

- Reduces the power of staff, bureaucracy, and lobbies.
Contrary to the claims of opponents, the new blood in Congress will not be influenced by the old staffs (many of whom will be replaced). Neither will they lean on, or be led by, bureaucracies or lobbyists. More likely they will be offended and put off by the arrogance of those groups. This may be overly optimistic logic. I would suspect that an newly elected legislator would be looking for every opportunity to be more successful, earlier. Hiring experienced staff might be very similar to auto racing teams hiring the proven pit crew teams.

Here are some of the more popular arguments for rebutting Term Limits:

- Term limits would force out the 'good' politicians along with the 'bad'.
This is an important argument to weigh. The “baby and the bath water argument” is used here a lot. A legislator doing good work should not necessarily be pushed out “just because their term is up”. Do you throw away your car just because it has reached 120K miles? I hope not if it is still performing well and in a reliable manner.

- Term limits increases the power of staff, bureaucracy, and lobbyists.
If term limits were to take effect, freshman congressman would be looking for distinct ways to get more attention for their agenda. One way to accomplish this goal would be the recruitment and hiring of experienced staff and lobbyist. There is a potential for elected officials to become mere figureheads as more and more of the business of congress would be accomplished by non-elected professional staffers.

- Legislative bodies would be less efficient rather than more.
If a third to a half of all Congressmen were part of a freshman class, it is very likely that little if anything would get done for the first 6-10 weeks. Then the process of seating committee chairs and sub-chairs would begin. With a high turn-over rate, this process could potentially take weeks to sort out. While predicting the future is impossible, this could totally stymie congress as it attempts to figure out who should sit where. Remember, right or wrong, seniority has been used as the primary factor for quickly determining the awarding of chairmanship assignments.

- Term limits would cause a loss of knowledge and experience.
I know, there are a lot of elected officials who need to move on in life. There are also plenty of elected people who are good at what they do. Our government is very complicated and there is the big question, “why would you get rid of someone right after they finally get good at what they do?”

What did you think of my list? Most of these arguments came from recent conversations. I agree that with good “name recognition” a mediocre politician can continue to hold office. I agree that there is tremendous pressure from outside sources to sway an elected officials vote. It also worries me that junior legislators can be easily swayed by their senior counterpart (but this is true in any of life’s venues). I also know that if someone is very good at their job they should keep doing it regardless of seniority. It is also true that a senior elected official can have lots of name recognition because of all the good work they have done and this should not be considered a bad thing.

Ultimately, the notion of term limits offends me. The right to vote is the right of individual choice. If I am being deprived of my favorite choice because of term-limits, my vote has been hijacked. There is the heart and sole of this debate…my vote. If the concern is how to get rid of bad politicians, we already have a solution, VOTE! That’s right…VOTE! We have always had the tools to remove our bad candidates and support the best, its call voting. A number of the people who have expressed to me in conversation the need for term limits, when asked said they did not vote in the most recent election. In the 2008 elections, only 56.8% (the highest percentage since 1968) of age eligible voters participated in the process. I personally am a little offended by the complacency that would create a situation where just over half of eligible voters actually participate in this valuable process. For efficiency we are only a truly democratic government a couple of days out of each year, the rest of the time we are a republic, seems a shame to skip your chance to be part of the democratic process.

But again, I am an idealist; my belief in the power of my vote assumes all voters will take the gauntlet of voting as seriously as I do. One of the true strengths to the notion of term limits that has not been discussed is protection from the idiot voter. How’s that for a slam! I take voting very seriously, but unfortunately, many other's who actually do vote don’t attack the challenge with their eyes open and their beer bottle set to the side. The most recent example of voters being stupid is Alan Greene: South Carolina, circa June 2010. In truth, term limits would protect me from the people who might elect and then reelect Mr. Greene.

So, what about that logical solution I spoke of earlier? Term limits assumes all politicians are bad and voters can’t make intelligent, common sense decisions for themselves. Both of these arguments offend me and they should offend you. You already have to ability to vote the good folks in and the bad folks out. Use your vote at every opportunity to make an informed decision about your elected officials and term limits will never be needed. Hopefully, we don’t have to worry too often about other voters making choices so poor that they qualify only as idiotic.

Comments (1)                                                                                                                                                    [Add Comment]


Sorry about the test post above. Last time I tried the comment didn't take.

You make a pretty good list of the arguments for and against term limits. I have one more to add. I'm not convinced term limits are the ultimate solution, but for years I've been bothered by the seniority problem. Power gained from seniority works in concert with our republican (non-parliamentary) system to create important dysfunction in our system.

Here's how it works, a politician gets elected from a small constituency like Pelosi in San Francisco, Duncan Hunter (the elder) in East San Diego, or even in the Senate say Byrd from a smaller state like West Virginia or Stevens in Alaska. They get re-elected several times because they are in tune with their constituency, and eventually they accumulate enough power to force the government to supply jobs, public works, and other favors for their small constituency, favoring them over other areas.

So San Diego has a border fence, but Arizona does not, and every highway in West Virginia is named after Byrd who steered the funds to projects that serve small constituencies. This leads to the paradox that confounds pollsters--the average voter hates Congress but will re-elect their own congress member. Of course I'm annoyed that Byrd or previously Stevens in Alaska can siphon off federal money for things that only help a few people. Of course I'm happy that Duncan Hunter could steer defense money San Diego's way, but that hardly seems a fair way to make decisions at the federal level.

Term limits are an easy way to even the seniority playing field. I'd be just as happy with no seniority rule, but that ain't gonna' happen. Gingrich tried it for 2 years after the '94 election, but that zeppelin didn't fly for very long.

And yes I've voted in every single election since I was eligible. I was even mildly annoyed that they lowered the voting age to 18 the year I turned 21. Those young whippersnappers! Considering who I voted for at 21 and even 25, I'm not sure the voting age shouldn't be raised. But that's off topic.

Posted at: Jun/10/2010 : Posted by: Frank

Fran Lebowitz
Success didn't spoil me, I've always been insufferable.
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