Why not have term limits only for bad politicians?

December 10th, 2009 by Al Lewis (alewis)

For about 30 years term limits have regularly popped up as a solution to get rid of ossified corrupt politicians who don’t do anything for the public good, in order to replace them with impotent freshman back-bench legislators who can’t do anything for the public good. 

What if there were a way to have term limits apply only to bad politicians?  There may be…

Consider:  There are two reasons elected officials go unchallenged.  Or if not unchallenged, then challenged pro forma in a perfunctory way:

(1)    They have large war chests, accumulated from years of soliciting contributions from fat cats, and can use the powers of incumbency to defeat any challenge, no matter how poorly they serve their constituents.  As Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards once said:  “The only way I lose reelection is if I am caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.”

(2)    They are doing such an excellent job that only die-hard members of the opposing party will vote against them.

How can term limits be applied selectively to keep the second group in office while losing the first?  Change the rules – or, in states with no rules, seek voluntary pledges from candidates to this effect – so that after X terms, instead of resigning, the elected official in question agrees to:

(1)  campaign only based on free media and personal appearances OR

(2)  spend only what his opponent spends OR

(3)  split his war chest in half and give half to whoever wins the opposing primary, if the opponent agrees to only spend that money.

Think of the incentives that creates:

(1)    The incumbent suddenly loses any incentive to raise campaign funds after a few terms, thus avoiding the conflicts of interest that campaign contributions create.  Under the alternative proposal where he or she agrees to split the war chest in half, a smaller war chest is actually better because presumably the incumbent has more name recognition going into the campaign than the challenger.  Raising too much money helps a prospective challenger more than himself!

(2)    The incumbent has to do a good job and please the majority of constituents

I am generally opposed to automatic term limits.  (With term limits, the Massachusetts Congressional delegation in general and Ted Kennedy in particular could not have used their seniority and clout to get the rest of the country to pay for our “Big Dig” boondoggle…because most of them would have been way past any term cutoff point.)  However, the idea of merit-based term limits seems worthy of consideration.

This also partially solves the issue of campaign finance reform, without complex rules regulating campaign contributions.  Why raise a ton of money if you’re just going to have to split it with your opponent and/or you aren’t allowed to spend it?  Why not spend the time you’d take to raising that money doing something for all your constituents instead of just the ones with checks?

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5 Responses to “Why not have term limits only for bad politicians?”

  1. Steve Reichenstein Says:

    Do not agree. Like all other “campaign reform” rules, money always has and will find it’s way back to help its target. When you squeeze a balloon the air simply moves to where you are not squeezing.

    I believe that the problems are that We the People are no longer active participants in the process. First, we don’t bother to do our homework about issues and candidates. Second, if We the People did our homework, we would be stymied by access and understanding of information about our government.

    We can’t make We the People get actively involved. But we can make the information accessible and understandable.

    So I recommend we consider these changes:
    (1) Require that all legislation and regulations be written to the high school (12th grade) reading level because that’s the maximum education paid by government;
    (2) Require that all legislation and regulations be no longer than 5 pages on 8-1/2″ x 11″ at 12 pt. type double-spaced — including budget items;
    (3) Require that all votes be roll call open votes;
    (4) Require that all regulations be voted as legislation;
    (5) Require that all legislation, votes, contribution sources, budget line-items, and meeting schedules be public, written at high school level and published on the web, in post offices and other federal public offices at least one week prior to votes
    (6) Get rid of electronic voting and go back to paper ballots with voter take-away receipts (of their votes).

  2. Steve Reichenstein Says:

    One final and separate thought …

    We the People would lose more control of our government if we enact term limits because our elected officials would not be their long enough to learn and act on that knowledge of how our government actually operates and the people paid in the bureaucracy to operate it.

    Short-term elected officials will be overwhelmed by long-term career government officials.

    So there is a value to long-term elective office holders.

  3. alewis Says:

    I myself am not a believer in term limits, but I AM a believer in level playing fields. The power of incumbency already unlevels the playing field, as it should, for the reason you give. But it SHOULDN’T unlevel the playing field for the wrong reason, namely that no one wants to challenge someone who has a big war chest. Here is Mass., most legislators get re-elected without opposition. That can’t be the right answer — they can’t all be that good. The one who recently went to jail never had serious opposition even though her ethical troubles were well-known.

    Now I am thinking that the answer is not a law, but an optional pledge by candidates that after three terms they will run using one of the options above OR perhaps agree to limit spending to whatever their opponent proposes should be spent.

  4. dblacklock Says:

    I read and studied Sabato’s “A More Perfect Constitution.” About term limits, he says we now have at least “some” evidence as to whether it works as advertised. The California, Michigan, Louisiana, and Nevada state legislatures have all enacted term limits and the early results are in, with unexpectedly mixed results. The diversity composition of the legislatures (supposed to improve) didn’t change much; intensive training programs for new legislators appeared and legislatures were about equally as productive (neutralizing the objections that so many new legislators at one time would slow down legislation); the power of the majority parties increased (whereas the idea was to create a better balance of power); the legislators forced to retire promptly filled other political seats at local, state, national, or lobbying levels (”musical political chair” phenomenon - absolute numbers of career politicians increased as opposed to the desired and predicted decrease). Term limits did not diminish the amount of lobbying - lobbyists just tweeked their tactics. When the rules of the game changed, parties and special interests followed suit.

    On the other hand, 8 states have taken it upon themselves to correct the problems of gerrymandering. In their wildest nightmares, the founders could not have predicted today’s continuously redistricted House of Reps, where elaborate computer programs permit politicians to carve up the map precisely to protect every incumbent, while draining the competition out of House elections. Several different nonpartisan methods of redistricting have been instituted by these 8 states, some putting those same partisan computer programs to anti-partisan use. Unlike the mixed results from term limits, more competitive elections have resulted with a more diverse House of Representatives. As a side benefit, resultant districts no longer look like a geographic hockey stick. Intense politics and entrenched interests have stalled similar efforts in many other states.

    Dave Blacklock

  5. Tooz Says:

    Personally, I think trying to pass term limits is a waste of time - there are more important things to work on.

    We have term limits - they are called elections. The reason they don’t work as well as they should is the apathy and stupidity of the voters, as well as the fraudsters like ACORN and slick liars called imcumbents.

    The people are waking up to our sins of apathy and stupidity as they see the slippery slope we are on to complete socialism in this country. The previously silent majority is speaking up - we are no longer going to allow the loud minority (as in liberals, not racial minorities) to declare which way we will go.

    Let’s work on jobs, deficit and debt reduction, illegal immigration, taxes and government fraud, waste and abuse - let the existing term limits work.

    Tooz

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