Term Limits: A Light in the Dark of Political Corruption

Incumbency is an issue in government, both local and federal, that has been a topic of controversy since government’s infancy. Incumbency is the issue of whether or not officials should stay permanently in office once elected. Should elected officials remain in office until they resign (or die off) or should they have some sort of lawful restriction placed on the duration of their service? An incumbent (office holder) who is aware that his term will eventually come to an end (with or without a possibility of re-running for election) is surely in a different mindset than an incumbent who needn’t worry of such things.

The notion that we should restrict incumbents from permanently holding office primarily arises from the fear that officials who are not restricted will be more prone to corruption, negligence, and incompetence. Unpopular office holders would be much more difficult to remove, requiring impeachment actions. Impeachment is typically reserved for officers who are corrupt, law violating or so incompetent that they danger the public good. What if the incumbent is none of these things and simply hails from a past era which no longer reflects the present? Suffice to say there is a myriad of reasons for an incumbent to stop holding his office. One form of restriction on incumbency is term limits.

A term limit is a legal restriction that limits the number of terms a person may serve in a particular elected office. The most familiar term limit to the layman is the presidential term limit of 2 terms (4 years each), meaning that the President of the United States may only run for re-election once and serve for a total of eight years.

In Suffolk County the government has instated term limits to restrict incumbents from staying for life (unlike the Federal Supreme Court, in which justices are elected for life) and these restrictions have had a significant impact on the political climate of the county. John Kiernan of Long Island Business News comments on the November 2005 elections and the role term limits played from an article dated November 18th Rich Schaffer’s magic lifts Democrats in Suffolk County:

In the last two years Levy has been strong and steady in his management of the county, and his popularity has increased while he has been in office.

Levy used that popularity to campaign for legislative candidates this year. Because of Suffolk’s term limits law, five popular county legislators could not seek re-election. Schaffer put together a campaign that picked up two of the open Republican seats which resulted in victories for Steven Stern in the 16th district and Louis D’Amaro in the 17th district. These two victories along with Browning’s win netted the Democrats three more seats in the Legislature. The GOP had enjoyed an 11-7 majority, but the Democrats now have a 10-8 majority.

Jeremy Harrell of the same publication would reflect on the same election in his January 13th, 2006 article Suffolk Democrat taking aim at county Treasurer job:

[Angie] Carpenter ran for treasurer in November after term limits forced her out of the Legislature, where she was deputy presiding officer. Now she must defend her job, not her job performance, against a plan she insisted isn’t in the best interests of the taxpayers.

In Suffolk County situations like these are common, but are they for the best? Should we restrict our elected officials from permanent incumbency? Should officials who are not suspected of corruption, are popular amongst the people, have done great things for the community and otherwise are exemplary servants of the public trust be forced to step down and allow new, inexperienced individuals to fill the role they once held? Term limits are a light in the encroaching darkness of political corruption. Although it is clear that at times the implementation of term limits may indeed remove an honest man from office, overall it is a great safeguard against the incompetent, undutiful, corrupt and negligent.

Term limits allow the new generations access to the government and ensures that the government always represents the people most honestly. Without term limits at the Federal level the government degenerates into an oppressive ‘president-for-life’ authoritarian regime, evidenced in many fledgling Old World republics such as Turkmenistan under Saparmurat Niyazov. At the local level government without term limits may become disinterested in the everyday concerns of the citizen and become more interested in collecting taxes. In the preamble to Arkansas’ Amendment 73, opponents of ratification condemned the absence of a rotation requirement, noting that “there is no doubt that senators will hold their office perpetually; and in this situation, they must of necessity lose their dependence, and their attachments to the people.” The nation’s Founders, along with famed Roman statesmen and British classical liberals, strongly believed in rotation in office. As Thomas Jefferson said: “whenever a man has cast a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct.” United Statesmen should be citizen legislators, not career politicians, as the U.S. Term Limits Organization put it. Indeed term limits are crucial to the healthy functioning of an honest republic.

Wikipedia elegantly summarizes the arguments both in favor and against the concept of term limits in the article Term Limits, quoting ad verbatim:

In favor of limits

“It prevents incumbents from using the benefits of office to remain in power indefinitely.” In some situations, merely being in office provides an elected official with a distinct advantage in further elections. Supporters of term limits argue that this advantage is undemocratic, and means that incumbents no longer fear losing their offices and cease to be concerned with the needs of their constituents. Term limits ensure that all officials are eventually removed from power.

“It makes room for fresh candidates, and encourages participation.” Imposing term limits on an office ensures that there will always be vacancies for new candidates to pursue. This may encourage citizens who would normally not consider running for office to do so, as they will not be challenging an established, entrenched opponent. Many proponents claim that term limits will increase diversity in a legislature, bringing the law-making body’s demographics more in line with those of the general population.

“It stops politicians from making choices solely to prolong their career.” If a politician can serve as many terms as they wish, they may be tempted to follow policies which will ensure their long-term political survival, rather than policies which further the interests of voters. Supporters of term limits sometimes argue that if politicians know from the beginning of their service that their time in office is limited, they will act differently (and less self-servingly) than “career” legislators.

“It reduces the advantage which can be gained by a representative’s seniority.” In some legislatures, power and influence tend to increase as a legislator gains seniority — a politician who has served many terms will carry more responsibility than one who has just been elected, even if both are representing the same number of voters. If one district continually re-elects the same politician, while another district frequently changes its politician, the first district will have greater sway in the legislature than the second, because its representative has had time to accrue seniority. Term limits ensure that each district has representatives of similar seniority.

Against Limits

“It is undemocratic.” The most common argument against the use of term limits is that it takes away the right of voters to be represented by the politician of their choice. It is argued that if the public wish to re-elect their representative, it is undemocratic to prevent them from doing so. Allow the electorate to do its job, argue opponents, and non-responsive legislators can still be held accountable.

“It results in a lack of experienced politicians.” Term limit opponents argue that, with experience, comes greater skill. The very use of the term “freshman representative” is indicative of the fact that the first-term legislator is less likely to be able to “get things done” in the legislature. It is further argued that inexperienced politicians will be more reliant on advice and guidance from un-elected officials and lobbyists. Permanent committee staffers, who ostensibly work for the representatives, would become more knowledgeable and powerful than the members themselves. Moreover, lobbyists in the employ of special interests might tend to grow more powerful, as they can offer to “help” inexperienced members gain a foothold. Because both staffers and lobbyists are unelected, opponents argue, term limits are undemocratic because it places more power in the hands of the unelected.

“It means that politicians approaching their term limit no longer have to worry about what voters think.” Another argument against term limits is that it is the very fact that politicians need to go back to the voters for approval and reelection that keeps them responsive. With term limits, a lame duck legislator no longer has any motivation to continue heeding the concerns of his constituents. In such a circumstance, a legislator could use their last term to set themselves up for a job in the private sector after the end of their legislative career.

“It simply results in frequent trading of office between the same people, not an influx of new people.” In contrast to the claims that term limits allow new faces to enter politics, opponents claim that there are enough political offices for elected officials to simply “play musical chairs”. In response to claims that term limits promote diversity, on August 15, 2006 the United States’ National Conference of State Legislatures issued a report at its annual meeting stating that “term limits have not led to significant increases in female or minority representation in state legislatures, according to a survey of the 15 states with term limits.”

David C. King of the Boston Sunday Herald said in Vote Against Term Limits dated April 10, 1994:

Term limits for politicians are wildly popular, and 15 states are preparing to kick their legislators out of Washington in a few years. In Massachusetts, the legislature is under pressure to hop on the term limits bandwagon. And across the country, supporters of term limits are turning their attention to tinkering with the U.S. Constitution. Let’s hope they fail. The loudest voices shouting “throw the bums out” are not citizen reformers, but the most interested of special interests.

We already have term limits. They’re called elections [this is assuming the election is not rigged, a rising suspicion in modern times as ‘state recounts’ seem to ensure illegitimate presidents into office]. For all the talk about entrenched incumbents, turnover in legislatures is much higher than you may think. In the last national elections, voters sent 110 new members to the U.S. House of Representatives. That’s more than 25 percent of the whole House. More than 50 percent of the Congress has been elected since 1986. Most of today’s lawmakers were elected during the Reagan and Bush presidencies, not the Carter and Johnson presidencies, as term limit supporters want you to believe. Those are the facts. In Washington, DC, fewer than 1 in 10 members ever stay as long as 20 years. Turnover in the Massachusetts legislature is even faster.

Some argue that even 1 in 10 long-serving members is too many because power comes with seniority. But it is through the few senior members, both Democrats and Republicans, that a reservoir of policy expertise keeps the executive branch in check. Most studies show that long-serving members are less likely to pander to short-term whims and more likely to take a national view.

In the end the disadvantages to term limits pale in comparison to the advantages. While we might grumble and groan about what we perceive to be ‘undemocratic,’ we are truly affected when an incompetent, corrupt or negligent official fails to perform his duty and our everyday life is affected in a negative way. While we can grumble about term limits being ‘undemocratic’ at least we can expect a new official in the coming years to perhaps repeal them. Without term limits, time will not weed out the treacherous and vile, and the overall society will suffer. Term limits always offers an ‘out’ – an alternative way to handle things in the years to come. This makes it the most crucial tool of democratic and republican societies. Term limits are especially important in a society where voters are not required to be educated and their simple susceptibility to demagogues makes the implementation of term limits absolutely mandatory, lest the population be enslaved by the most handsome face.

The Founding Fathers believed that politics should be a duty to be performed for the sake of the common good, not for the sake of a career, not for the sake of being a politician. Without term limits politicians become career royals who need not worry about the common good as long as the checks keep coming. We must have faith in them, but there is no guarantee of loyalty. When term limits are enacted it is impossible for individual politicians to dominate a single office and other citizens are given the chance to serve their government. ‘Citizen legislators, not career politicians’ becomes the rallying cry when term limits are implemented.

“In free governments, the rulers are the servants and the people their superiors and sovereigns. For the former, therefore, to return among the latter is not to degrade but to promote them.”

– Benjamin Franklin, 1787

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