Term Limits, considered.

May 26, 2010

There is one thing that the proponents of term limits have gotten right: legislatures should be of, for, and by the citizens.  While I heap praise on Europe for many things, the fact is that the legislatures in other countries have become dominated by the alums of a few schools (in the United Kingdom, it is Eton College, which is home to 18 Prime Ministers; in France, it is the Ecole nationale d’administration).  The great thing about America is that you have legislators from such varying backgrounds.  We have legislators from the best colleges in the world (President Barack Obama) and legislators with no college degree whatsoever (Rep. Michael Michaud [D-ME]).

Another great thing about our country is that we are a democracy, and in this democracy, we have the ability to vote out those that we do not like, and keep those that we do.  Term limits, however, subvert this notion of a democracy.  Term limits make the Gregorian calendar a bigger arbiter of democracy than the ballot box.  I bristle at this notion that no term limits breed professional politicians.  If you look at the best managed states in the nation (Utah, Virginia, Nevada), these states have no legislative term limits and, with the notable exception of Virginia (which has a single-term limit on governors), no gubernatorial term limits either.

If you really think about it, term limits places more power into the hands of two entities:

1. Political Parties.

  • Because of term limits, you essentially place the power of the legislature in the hands of party nominating conventions.  These conventions tend to be more politically extreme than the electorate as a whole, and could send up legislators that have no intention of seeking solutions that attract votes from across the aisle.  Unless you live in a state like Massachusetts or Wyoming, compromise is usually required to pass through meaningful pieces of legislation (omnibus bills in education, transportation, etc.).  Certain legislators have built up enough rapport with the electorates in their various states (Rep. Collin Peterson [DFL-MN] and Sen. Olympia Snowe [R-ME] come to mind) where they have inoculated themselves against challenges from their party.  But a state legislator who has only been in office for a couple of terms cannot do that, and is beholden to party leaders for support.

2. Bureaucracy

  • If you have a professional class working within state government that has been there longer than any of the legislators, who is going to have the balance of knowledge within state government.  This should scare a lot of the people who are for term limits, the biggest reason being that most of these people tend to be conservative and wary of the auspices of government.  Instead of having an institutional knowledge of sorts, you have the capitols of various states being run by bureaucrats and lobbyists, who have the upper hand in the information necessary to craft bills and cast informed votes on said bills.  Conservatives seem to rail against the “Washington bureaucrat”, yet they are willing to hand over the breadth of the government to them by imposing term limits on legislators.

Now make no mistake, I am for Presidential term limits.  While I believe that FDR’s four terms brought about some of the most profound and substantive changes in policy in American history, I do not know that the country would have been similarly better off with three or four terms of Ronald Reagan.  So while I would have enjoyed an extra term of President Clinton, I think that the 24th Amendment is a good thing.

However, on a state and Congressional level, if someone like former Gov. Terry Branstad (R-IA) wants to come out of retirement and run for what would be his fifth term as Governor of Iowa, so be it.  If Rep. John Dingell wants to run for his 29th term this fall, so be it.  The people should be the judge of when someone leaves office, not a page on a calendar.