Term Limits

>> Monday, October 6, 2008

They are an interesting concept. Term limits are designed to prevent legislators from getting old and corrupt in office. They are supposed to keep new blood and fresh ideas in our government. Like any well intentioned idea, or even malintended idea, they have their down side. I think if people examined them closely they would see that most term limits do not serve the public good.

The debate over term limits has arisen because of Mayor Michael Bloombergs attempt to over turn the two term limit for mayor of new york. He wants a third term. Apparently he is the only one who can save ny during this appalling crisis. There are several takes out there on the net about the idea of term limits and they do seem to come down on the side of not needed.

Matt Yglesias

in a broader sense, term limits have never struck me as a policy with an especially strong theoretical or empirical justification. Term limits are more interesting insofar as there’s no duller story in politics than “popular incumbent cruises to re-election” but why shouldn’t popular incumbents cruise to re-election? Term limits for the state legislature haven’t improved governance in California, and I think the country would have been better served in both 2008 and 2000 by a more clear-cut choice about whether or not to continue on the current direction.


I don't like them generally, though I think there's a better case for them or executive positions than for jobs in the legislature. But I don't think it's good to change the fundamental rules in the middle of the game to benefit you. Want to get rid of term limits? Remove them for your successors.

and Ezra

...Bob Corker and Sarah Palin are among the newer politicians on the scene. There's no obvious evidence that they're particularly effective by virtue of being relative novices. On the other hand, look at our more effective legislators, like Kennedy, and you'll notice a certain commonality of tenure. Out in California we have sharp term limits. The result? A legislature with no expertise, where a good quarter of the representatives spend the first year trying to figure out where the parliamentarian keeps the bathroom key. It's a damn tough thing to pass a budget when no one has passed more than a handful of them. It's even harder when there aren't deep working relationships between various legislators, and new coalitions need to arise on an almost yearly basis.

This isn't a particularly popular rhetorical statement, but governance is a skill. A profession. It needs to be learned, honed, perfected. There's a desire to believe good governance the natural outgrowth of high virtue, but no particular reason that should be true. We don't want citizen-surgeons or citizen-plumbers or citizen-elementary school teachers. We want people who know what they're doing. So too should it be with governance, where leaders need to learn what they're good at, what issues merit their attention, which staff members to listen to, which private priority is quietly shared by other legislators and can be written up as an amendment. Lauder says that "our founders believed" that you "serve your time in government and then go back home." Fair enough. But when our Founders were figuring this out, we had a weak central government, a handful of states, a tiny economy, no Federal Reserve, no air force, no nuclear weapons, no health care system. Iraq, Israel, and Pakistan didn't exist. There was no United Nations, no World Trade Organization, and America was not a superpower.

I agree that if you are going to try and end term limits as the executive that really needs to either be done up front in the campaign to elect you the first time or for you successor. However, there is the argument that putting term limits up for a referendum and letting it sink or swim is in keeping with democracy. If the people want to keep them then they vote to keep them, other wise they are gone. This vote really should not happen in a crisis though as it reeks of the shock doctrine.

Ezra is really making two points in his comment. The first is that the people who come in are unfamiliar with the relationships and procedures and that by the time they get up to speed they are termed out. This is not a failure of the concept only in execution. Changing the number or length of the terms allowed would eliminate that problem. Say 10-15 years and you have to sit a term out? that would allow a balance between new blood and experience. That really is the key is keeping the balance between those two forces term limits are just one tool.

I agree with Ezra on his second point that governing is a skill. It is a complicated process, thats why we cant stand palin, she is not up to the task from he get go. However i disagree that we cant get regular people who can handle the things he mentions from out side of government. To say the only qualified people for government are already in government is absurd. You have to start somewhere. Dealing with the things Ezra cites requires more a demonstration of good judgment and a high intelligence than a specialized training in a skill set like a surgeon. I think we are already requiring too great a limit on the people we want for office, like the fact that serving in the military is an automatic advantage.

The idea of term limits is somewhat related to the conservative philosophy that government is the problem and that all we need is a little common sense. Clearly this is not the case. It struck me as rather odd in the debate when palin shifted from "government get out of my way" to needing "massive oversight" of the financial industry. Cant she see that is a complete contradiction of her philosophy? If government is the problem then oversight would be irrelevant. That she calls for it demonstrates just how relevant it is. Think about the things government regulates out, lead content in toys, poison in dog food, harmful drugs, chemicals in drinking water. Dumping politicians because they chose that career is not a good idea. We do need competent people.

Term limits also safeguard against the ignorance and sloth of the general public. Think about how easy it is for bad legislators to stay in power, cough-ted stevens-cough-vitter-craig-cough. The american people dont seem to care about this type of stuff so if we have to term these guys out that seems fine to me.

Term limits like many things depend on the execution. if done properly they can provide a safe guard against crappy legislators while allowing for the accumulation of competent legislators with the personal relationships and knowledge to do the job.


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