Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Mano a Mano on Term Limits

by Kyle Michaelis
After my posts (1 and 2) this weekend on the challenge to Nebraska's legislative term limits, I've found myself engaged in something of a debate on the merit of such restrictions with Nebraska blogger Ryne McClaren. I figure some of you might be interested in the debate so far.

Ryne started things off (and I'll give him the benefit of fancy italics):
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R: I've always been generally supportive of term limits. Various arguments can certainly be made in favor of term limits, of course; Jesse Helms, Ted Kennedy and Strom Thurmond spring immediately to mind at the Capitol Hill level.

But let me submit the following hypothetical to you. You're a resident , as I am, of a rural Congressional or State legislative district that is mostly rural and "middle class" (at best). You and other voters like you elect a representative who carries the fight from your district to the halls of Lincoln or Washington. That person creates jobs. That person brings home state/federal funding for worthwhile projects. Why on Earth would you want to term limit such a person?

I suppose that the reason you vote for term limits, given the following hypothetical, is because no one happens to be satisfying you, the voter, by carrying the fight to Lincoln or Washington. Situations aren't improving. We're merely voting for the same old, same old, year in and year out.

The other head of the coin is that if the residents of a District want to more or less elect someone to serve them for life, why not? Why should I care if the fine folks in District 11 choose to keep Ernie Chambers in office from now until Doomsday?

At the same time, you have to remember that the term limit amendment also reflects the "will of the people," and the irony of the flagrant disregard for those voters by some of our elected officials isn't lost on me either.

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K: You fail to mention that which is most objectionable about these term limits - they are fundamentally undemocratic.

While "the people" may have voted for them, it is an entirely legitimate question whether 56% of voters in 2000 should be able to tell 100% of voters in 2006 and beyond who they CAN NOT vote for - especially when there has always been the recourse of voting for alternative candidates to the incumbent in the first place.

Of course, term limits in the executive branch are also, in a sense, undemocratic, but these are much longer established and reflect the anti-authoritarian principles and precautions on which this nation was founded. Risk of monarchy (or aristocracy) from the legislative branch is of a much different, lesser sort...particularly when a strong legislature is another protection against the executive exercising too much power.

Term limits in the legislature (state or federal) undoubtedly reduce its stature, standing, and experience-levels. As the branch most responsible and closest to the citizenry, the true power of the people in our government is therby weakened. For this reason, legislative term limits are terrible public policy and raise fundamental issues of constitutionality even when "the people" foolishly embed them in a state's constitution.

What is a truer reflection of the will of the people - a vote in 2000 funded by ideological extremists from outside of Nebraska or a supposed vote in 2006 choosing an incumbent such as Dennis Byars over anyone who opposes him? One of these voices is going to be silenced, regardless. Promoting open ballots without term limits is the more democratic solution because the option is ALWAYS there to "throw the bastards out."

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R: Yes, term limits may be viewed as fundamentally undemocratic. All of the points that you make are completely valid, and I do agree, in part, that simply going to the polls every two, four, or six years ought to offer a recourse to the voter.

These are all things that I grapple with when trying to decide whether or not I support term limits.

However, more and more states, counties and municipalities are adopting term limits as a way to prevent corruption before it starts, reduce the abuse of power and encourage participation by those who want to be involved.

Another popular catchphrase floating around out there from a group supporting term limits is "Citizen Legislators, Not Career Politicians." I think that one speaks for itself.

One of the biggest obstacles in getting people to participate in their civic duty to vote is that there is a perception that "my vote doesn't count." After all, if you do not like Ted Kennedy or Ernie Chambers, what good is going to do you to go and vote against them? They're going to win anyway. In fact, career politicians from the legislative branch all the way down to our municipalities have served for entire generations. No qualified, honorable candidates run against them and many self-respecting citizens refuse to get involved in what they see as a lost cause.

While the option to "throw the bastards out" may be there in theory, it seems as though it fails when in practice.

While it's undoubtedly true that open ballots would be the best way to handle career politicans, the career politicians reman. I'll admit that I have no idea what the Founders would have thought of, say, Strom Thurmond, but surely it flies in the face of an open, participatory government of the people and by the people.

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K: The whole "Citizen legislators vs. Career Politicians" thing is just a good campaign slogan gone over-board. There's absolutely nothing wrong with "career politicians" so long as they remain responsive and accountable to voters.

The whole argument for legislative term limits is an argument that democracy doesn't work. People are "too stupid" to vote the way they should on candidates, so we have to trick them into changing the rules and foregoing their right to vote for whomever they choose....all by making boogeymen of those we once considered public servants.

Under your "my vote doesn't count" theory, the Republican Party should be banned in Nebraska because it has such a registration advantage that Democrats and Independents have no reasonable reason to vote.....EXCEPT THIS IS A DEMOCRACY AND WE PUT OUR FAITH IN THE PEOPLE. That means we believe people can change their minds. We believe that with hard work and perseverance a bad politician will get beat. If that's not true, democracy has a problem that no term limit can repair.

Just because so few people are willing to put in the work and make the leap of faith that is a political campaign doesn't mean we should impose limits on our freedoms. Nor should we necessarily even be able to do so - many rights have been held as inalienable under the U.S. Constitution.

None of this means we shouldn't do something to alleviate the institutional advantages of incumbency, but campaign finance reform has always been the more reasonable, more democratic alternative to these ill-conceived and fundamentally cynical term limits.

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Well, it's not quite Lincoln-Douglass, but a little polite debate on these matters is always enjoyable....and hopefully - sometimes - a little good can even come of it.

If anyone has anything to add, please feel free to do so. Both Ryne and I are always appreciative of our fellow Nebraskans' (or really anyones') opinions.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am personally opposed to term limits, but I think McClaren is skirting one of the stronger arguments. It relates the "stop corruption before it starts" argument as well as his hypothetical.

Even if you like your legislator, you should be concerned about how long Ernie Chambers or any other Senator serves because the levers of power are guarded by those with the greatest seniority.

Term limits move people through committee chair positions much quicker than life-time service.

Seniority is one of the reasons good, young legislators often leave for other opportunities and old, tired legislators stick around.

Term limits are not the only (or even the best) response to this reality, but they are a response. You can gore your own ox though, because folks from less "powerful" areas of the state can wield greater influence over statewide affairs if their Senator happens to hold a committee chairmanship. But there is a perception that someone is always in the way of your guy.


Anonymous Ryne McClaren said...

I've tried not to skirt the issue of "fossilization" of politicians, but Eric is right in that I probably haven't made a persuasive enough argument in that regard.

I'll probably post another comment at my site that explores that more in depth when I have the time.

Also, one of the things that I don't think term limits in any form ought to propose is the complete throwing out of elected officials. There is nothing wrong with serving, but it seems to me that it's a matter of when "enough is enough."

Anonymous humean said...

Regarding the popular catchphrase on "citizen legislators", I can't help but consider another catchphrase: the "revolving door" between government and the world of lobbying and corporate power.

Term limits may create even more opportunists who merely want to get their foot in the government door before taking the revolving door for Duke Cunningham and Dick Cheney style wealth.

There should be some way to enforce the "citizen legislators" philosophy thing by banning former elected government officials from participation in ANY lobbying capacity for 5 years as well as banning them from sitting on ANY corporate boards or positions of corporate influence if that firm does ANY business with the state. Yes, this restricts the freedom of some potential representatives, but so does term limits. Do we really want people to run for office if they aren't even willing to commit themselves to that position ?? Government should be about public service, not private gain... Remember all that nice JFK "ask not what your country can do for you..." crap ???

Elected officials, being public servants, should be making a SACRIFICE to represent the people and not exploiting the position the people put them in. I would require some sort of "public contract" be signed on admittance to any elected government position whereby each official promises to submit to serious punishment if found to have abused his government connections in the future for the benefits of special interest groups.

Of course, this is all very vague and it's hard to define "abusing connections" but the very fact that you make congressmen or appointees sign a contract would probably scare them into some discipline.

If our beloved corporate world can make workers sign away their free speech and future employment with competitors, then the populace sure as hell can demand the same from politicans.

Finally, a note on incumbency: Each Nebraska legislator represent less than 35,000 residents. This is one of the more granular bodies of representation, approximately the same degree of representation as originally desired by the founding fathers of America in the era of horses and buggies. By comparison, California only has only 120 total legislators (40/80 bicameral) for 33 million people, making its legislature truly elitist as its upper house is literally MORE EXCLUSIVE than the US House of Representatives (represent over 800,000 people!).

A citizen in Nebraska with the time and passion should certainly be able to run a competitive campaign for state senate against most ANY incumbent. I doubt stupid stuff like yard signs make much difference in an election, but MEETING 3-5,000 constituents certainly would!!!

Anonymous humean said...

Regarding new blood, fossilization, etc

I just say we as the voters should be ASHAMED of OURSELVES for voting incumbents back into office like 90% of the time. We are the screw ups.

Instead of giving default support to incumbent, a real energized voter should first automatically look to the fresh blood vying to fill the office and THEN proceed to ask the question "what has this incumbent done to DESERVE the office back?"

I guess it's too much to ask Americans to actually accept change and the unknown as the default state since we are mostly a bunch of sheep. Look how scared we are to seriously commit to making any changes in our archaic dinosaur of a constitution (esp our simplistic & unfair voting systems and the gross misrepresentation of the electorate in the senate/house) as well as stuff like the metric system.

Yeah, my view of the voter is pie in the sky idealism, but it's the way we should be. We voters only have to blame ourselves for the state of our legislatures. We are too busy with our Monday night football, Power Point presentations, and American Idol to show even the slightest interest or curiosity at what our representatives are doing and who is eagearly waiting in the wings to oppose them.

Blogger FLTermLimits said...

Legislators are trying to extend term limits to 12 years in Florida despite 77% of voters voting FOR 8 year term limits. 8 year term limits were brought to the constitution by citizen initiative and coincidentally their extension was brought upon by the Florida legislators. Help us oppose them! www.floridatermlimits.com


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