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All content © 2002-2005 Anne Zook

December 27, 2002
Term Limits

I've been thinking about this subject. When the idea first came up in Colorado, I was all for it in a sort of knee-jerk, "throw the bums out" way, but I'm reconsidering. It occurs to me that we don't, actually, have an unlimited number of qualified applicants for public office, still less a sizeable pool of fairly honest applicants.

What happens when someone who really does consider the wants and needs of their constituency comes up against the third-strike or whatever limit? They're outta there, with whatever other bums have bumped up against the limit that year. Is this really desirable?

There is, of course, the argument that term limits forces rotation, keeping politicians from getting entrenched in a Capitol City Mentality.

That's a pro and a con, though. Governing isn't easy and just any moron can't do it. (Stop looking at the White House! He's not really in charge and anyhow we're talking in general terms right now.) The question is that if experience is a good thing when you walk in the door to apply for a "normal" job, then why isn't it a good thing in a politician?

The answer is that it is a good thing. A repeater learns the best spots for lunch, can find their parking spot without a tour guide, and knows who to contact when the bathroom is out of paper towels. With a little application, they might also have already learned the jargon of the office, who really pulls the strings, and what it takes to accomplish something. This leaves them free to do actual work in subsequent terms.

But if someone comes up against term limitations and they know they're going to lose their job in two, four, or six years, no matter how well they do it, what happens? Do we honestly think they're going to remain as honest, as responsive, and as committed to fulfilling the needs of their constituency?

Not. The "constituency" is just the people promising to fire them pretty soon.

A guy who knows that in 36 months he's going to be pounding the pavement with a resume in one hand isn't likely to be giving that 110 percent that we like to see in our elected officials. (Or, really, in our coworkers.) It's called "short-timers' syndrome" and in most offices, once you've handed in your resignation they tend to give you your final check and shove you out the door that same day so that your short-timers' syndrome doesn't infect the rest of the office.

Short-timers' syndrome is characterized by lackluster performance, decreased productivity, and a tendency to do whatever you want instead of what the job demands because, after all, what are they going to do? Fire you? You're already leaving.

In an elected official this can and quite likely will mean that they'll be spending their last term feathering their own bed, making useful contacts for future jobs, and wheeling and dealing with party leaders or anyone else in power.

Term limits weaken accountability. I'm not saying that a few people won't use being term limited as an opportunity to really "vote their conscience" on things, but I have to wonder why, if their conscience matches what their constituency elected them to do, this is accepted as a course of action that is barred from other representatives?

Term limits create bad government. Constant turnover, jockeying for power, uncertainty about the future, unwillingness to take on long-term projects that the candidate won't have time to see to a finish, and the need to constantly be on the look-out for a new and different position distract from the business of governing.

Term limits encourage poor citizenship. How much do you have to care if this guy or that gal is a crook? After all, they aren't going to be in office for more than a couple of terms and how much damage can they do in four years, anyhow? So, vote for anyone, what does it matter?

(Pursuant to that same point, I think someone should start a campaign to re-institute the teaching of civics in public schools.)

Anyhow. Because it's not a blog without links, here are some on-line articles:

Term Limits Temptation (by George Detweiler, from The New American, June 10, 1996)

Term Limits Voters Guide (See, " A Brain Dead Voter's Guide to Term Limits" for a giggle). The overly-simplistic site belongs to Marc Perkel, who claims to be the "most dangerous mind on the internet" which isn't true, but the "Brain Dead" essay amused me.

Then there's the Independence Institute which claims to address " a broad variety of public policy issues from a free-market, pro-freedom perspective." (Many of the "Opinion Editorial Archives" titles show a clear conservative bias. They include essays against the estate tax, renewable energy sources, public smoking bans, and for "legitimate" gun owners, smaller government, private schools, and privatization of government functions. On the flip side, there are also some more traditionally liberal-sounding topics. When I have time, I'll have to go research this Institute further.)

Anyhow. The ARE TERM LIMITS WORKING? article is by Bob Bucher, who supports term limits as encouraging competition.

Then there's The Cato Institute "The Cato Institute seeks to broaden the parameters of public policy debate to allow consideration of the traditional American principles of limited government, individual liberty, free markets and peace. Toward that goal, the Institute strives to achieve greater involvement of the intelligent, concerned lay public in questions of policy and the proper role of government."

They identify themselves as "liberal" but allow as how "libertarianism" (in, you understand, a high-brow, Thomas Jefferson sort of way) is probably the best word for their philosophy.

Anyhow. Their article is titled What Term Limits Do That Ordinary Voting Cannot (summary at link) and is by Einer Elhauge, a professor of law at Harvard Law School. They argue that term limits help to modify the unnatural "clout" of senior representatives and remove barriers that prevent new candidates from being able to enter the political arena.

They have other arguments, as well.

" Term limits solve a collective action problem and lessen the seniority penalty that makes it difficult for districts to oust ideologically unsatisfactory incumbents"

If I understand what that means, I'd like to point out that an ideologically unsatisfactory incumbent can be ousted by the voters if they'd just bother to do it.

The full .pdf file can be found here for those with the time to read it. I won't prejudice you except to say that I got a good giggle out of the section that claimed that senior representatives get more respect and have more clout, not because they head up committees with lots of money for pork but just because they've been there a long time.

Let me just add a side note that this is the crappiest looking .pdf I've ever seen from an organization that pretends to be professional. Looks like it was typed on a Selectric typewriter and then scanned in to a computer two days before the advertised publication date of 12/16/99, so don't blame me that it's hard to read, okay? I'll admit I haven't yet read all 47 pages, but I'm working on it.

Posted by AnneZook at 02:54 PM


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