Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Term Limit Debate Rages On

by Kyle Michaelis
In continuation of my previous post and lifted from Ryne McClaren's blog, our debate on Nebraska's legislative term limits continues, with a few more voices entering the fray.

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Ryne: Perhaps it isn't that term limits will impose limits on our freedoms, but will instead force those we elect to be more deliberate in their decisions. Without having to cater to the winds of public opinion, our officials will be able to vote in the manner that the Founders originally intended. (Or, in theory I suppose, everyone could be a lame duck. So there you go.)

Politicians are notorious for polling and following the lead of the people they represent, at least in theory or in lip service. However, the one area in which they most conspicuously defy public opinion is on the issue of term limits. And let's not forget that the public does indeed support term limits. It seems to be one of the few things that we support across party lines, gender and race. States and municipalities, when they put term limits on a ballot, pass them. I have no doubt that term limits on the Legislative branch would pass as well.

The simple fact of the matter, and I have nothing to back this up besides a gut feeling, is that people hate careerism in their elected officials. Plain and simple.

While I certainly sympathize with many of the arguments against term limits, I've yet to see an effective enough argument to persuade me that the people can't figure out what is good for them most of the time.

And yes, this is a democracy. But only the minority is opposed to term limits, and so far the minority has ruled the day. That, in and of itself, does not reflect democracy in action, unless the word "democracy" suddenly means "the rule of the politicians, their lawyers and the courts" in this context.

Whether or not term limits will or won't alleviate the institutional advantages of incumbency is obvious: state and national term limits will effectively end the unfair perpetual incumbency that has kept not just good, decent politicians in office, but corrupt, power-mad politicos as well.

Our government -- locally and in Washington -- has become so involved in matters outside of its original scope that it is now practically useless. I mentioned earlier that I was unsure of how the Founders felt about careerism in politics, but I doubt if they thought about it at all. What they did caution us about, however, was perpetual power left unchecked. Career incumbents represent just that very thing.

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Steve: Candidates are much more responsive to the general public than are the established politicians. I have witnessed many an already elected official act rudely, boorishly and flat out ignore their constituents. Candidates running for an open seat rarely exhibit these tendencies.

Most of the people arguing against term limits have an established relationship with a sitting politician and they don't want to have to go out and reestablish one with someone they don't have a relationship with. As the old saying goes, it is better to deal with the enemy you know than the enemy you don't.

It is my belief that many that sit in any position for a long time end up rewarding their powerbase and ignoring and even abusing everyone else. I have watched this happen on library boards, NRD boards, and in the legislature. I am not saying there are not good politicians that resist this temptation but I think the majority of humans that sit on a board for more than 10 years reek of arrogance.

There are two ways to break the problem. One is term limits. The other is a press that reports a lot more than the current press does. Right now, most elected officials act in secret. This doesn't mean they hold secret meetings although in the case of my NRD, they are routinely holding what I believe to be illegal meetings. What I mean is that most public bodies make a lot of decisions that never get reported by the press. If the public was more informed about what elected officials did then there would probably be more turnover. But that is a two way street. Someone has to report it and enough people have to care enough to listen to or read the report.

Right now we have about 25% of the population making all of the decisions. The rest either don't care or get out voted. Happy are those that are in the 25%.

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Abe: Good discussion. Personally, I think term limits are less needed in the Nebraska Unicameral than in the US Congress. In the House there is practically no turnover unless the encumbent dies. The House was supposed to be the most responsive government body, but it has become the least.

Politics has become all about taxing Peter to buy the vote of Paul and get re-elected. Removing the possiblity of re-election could significantly improve the quality of our lawmakers' decisions.

These were not intended to be lifetime jobs. Even with term limits in place, nothing prevents a career in politics. The politician just has to go after other offices.

"Campaign finance reform" is far more undemocratic than term limits. It's all about encumbent protection. Forced equality in spending = advantage for the encumbent. Encumbents are writing these laws, and they are not going to write themselves out of an advantage. As long as government is in the business of handing out favors and penalties, money will be brought to bear in obtaining the favors and/or avoiding the penalties.

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Me: While I respect all of you gentlemen's opinions, I must take issue with cetain things said. [Steve]'s ludicrous and insulting to say that those who oppose term limits do so only because they have an established relationship with elected politicians. 44% of Nebraska voters did not support the 2000 Amendment and many of those who voted for it did so out of a well-intentioned but poorly-reasoned desire to simply cut their legislators down to size (especially one Mr. Ernie Chambers). Above I've offered a reasonable (though perhaps refutable) argument against term limits without relying on...or possessing...any such personal connection. I write on principle.

As for Abe and Ryne, I don't think either of you give enough recognition to how fundamentally undemocratic it is to tell people they can't vote for a respected and well-known legislator...or that said legislator can't run for another term. Open and fair elections are our defense against lifetime appointments - the only defense needed if your average citizen were active and actually gave a damn.

Term limits are the ultimate expression of the childish anti-government thinking that has everyone up in arms over how terrible politicians are EXCEPT for the one they keep voting for. They won't work because they run such a risk of making the legislature every bit as bad and pathetic as people like to blame it for being. Personally, I prefer a strong legislature - both in federal and state govt - to a bunch of single-issue knee-jerk reactionaries otherwise beholden to lobbyists and the ruling executive. We need strong and experienced legislators - held accountable by the people at the ballot box - to keep those powers in-check.

Term limits throw the balance of power all to hell. Maybe they could work in a bicameral system (for instance, I could probably support a 2 or 3 term limit in the U.S. Senate because of its exclusivity) but imposing them on the Unicameral (and Nebraska voters...even if foolishly self-imposed) is an invitation to disaster. While the advantages of incumbency demand discussion and reform, THIS is not the way.

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As you can likely see, I'm sort of standing alone on this one (as I seemingly do on a great deal of issues amongst Nebraska political writers). But hey, that's okay. Anything you'd like to add, please do so here or at the source (though beware, things are a lot more "conservative" in those parts...God bless'em).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Because I am *ahem* not as studied as all of you, I will make my comment here instead. I think it's funny that there's this argument at all when it's my perception that the only reason a lot of voters voted for term limits in the first place is to "get rid of" a certain individual in the unicameral. I've talked to many such voters.

So saying that the people who voted against term limits did so because they have an established relationship with a particular politician, I think, is somewhat the opposite of what really happened.

The thing I'm curious to see is, with the low pay we offer senators in Nebraska, and the relatively low prestige, are we even going to have enough candidates? Probably- there's always enough people out there either with a genuine passion or enough money otherwise to run, I suppose. It’ll be interesting to watch, though.

Great site here, I've been searching for one like it for a while.

Karin Dalziel (

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

Thanks for stopping by. Don't confuse our fondness for hearing ourselves type and ranting for proof that we are so well-studied. We're just Nebraskans with opinions, and I - for one - appreciate you contributing your own...which is certainly no more or less valid.

Do come back and never hesitate to share what you're thinking.

Your point about the low prestige of state senators in Nebraska is particularly well-received and demands more consideration. They are hardly paid enough that anyone should reasonably pursue public service...and now people are asking them to forego their right as citizens to challenge the constitutionality of these term limits in court.

It's sad, really.


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