Term Limits Dying?

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The Christian Science Monitor tries to pull the shroud over term limits. An excerpt:

Term limits—the great political revolt that rolled into California and spilled across 21 states since the early 1990s—has reached its high-tide mark and may be ebbing.

A lawsuit now pending in Wyoming could make that state the sixth to rescind term limits, behind Utah, Idaho, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington. Nearly every other state using term limits has tried to eliminate or alter them.

"Term limits is a idea that is running out of both steam and room," says Patrick Basham, senior fellow at the CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C. The remaining five states that have provisions that allow citizens to introduce them have rejected the idea and the rest—24 other states—would require legislators taking the action themselves. "That would be like turkeys voting for Thanksgiving … not likely," says Mr. Basham.

Instead, 16 states—Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and now Wyoming—are looking for ways to repeal or loosen them.

The CSM piece does not address the main reason many libertarians have traditionally been advocates of term limits: the notion that longer-term legislators get so thoroughly marinated in a "culture of spending" that they will tend to tax and spend and expand government more than short-termers would. Some tentative evidence along those lines can be found in a Cato Institute policy study here. [pdf file]

I've never been completely convinced by those arguments, but, as one libertarian friend of mine said to me, at least we know term limits are a policy that causes misery for some people, career politicians, that it is a blessing to jab at.

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  1. Whatever else one might think of term limits (and I’ve heard good arguments on both sides) there is also one other virtue: At some point an incumbent’s time is up, and with it the huge electoral advantage bestowed by incumbency. This can lead to more competitive elections.

    Of course, that advantage may be nullified by gerrymandering, as well as some of the proposed negatives of term limits. Still, food for thought.

  2. From a democratic perspective, the primary function of term limits is to prevent people from electing the person they want to.

    It can be argued that this is a situation where we need to save the electorate from itself, but I just don’t buy it — if you force people to be short-term politicians, you encourage short-term thinking. Why *not* run huge deficits if some other sucker is going to be the one stuck raising taxes or cutting spending later on?

  3. Dan,

    Don’t they do that anyway? Once a politician sees the havoc he’s wreaked, he can just decide to not run anymore, and the next guy gets stuck raising the taxes.

    I see term limits as limiting the politican’s opportunity to profit from legislation he’s going to create.

  4. I have yet to see a politician actually be on the hook for running large deficits. Even if they’re still in whatever legislating body, there’s always an ‘Empty Chair’ for them to point at to blame for debts.

    While some see term limits as a way to curb spending by removing the incentive to buy future votes, I still think that’s addressing a problem merely on its periphery. I think the benefit of erasing their incumbency advantage is probably a good idea, especially given things like the McCain-Feingold Incumbency Protection Act. Apart from that, tho, I think it’s a wash between the ‘throw the bums out!’ faction and the ‘Only prevents people from voting for who they want’ faction.

  5. I hadn’t really considered it before but I would’ve figured libertarians would be against term limits. It’s so obvious I’m shocked really. See the comment above about saving the electorate from itself. I suppose you could argue it’s a self-imposed restriction, and it is. But it also limits choice down the road, in the hope of avoiding what are only potential bad consequences.

    Weird.

  6. I hadn’t really considered it before but I would’ve figured libertarians would be against term limits. It’s so obvious I’m shocked really. See the comment above about saving the electorate from itself. I suppose you could argue it’s a self-imposed restriction, and it is. But it also limits choice down the road, in the hope of avoiding what are only potential bad consequences.

    Weird.

  7. “That the legislative and executive powers of the state should be separate and distinct from the judiciary; and that the members of the two first may be restrained from oppression, by feeling and participating the burdens of the people, they should, at fixed periods, be reduced to a private station, return into that body from which they were originally taken, and the vacancies be supplied by frequent, certain, and regular elections, in which all, or any part, of the former members, to be again eligible, or ineligible, as the laws shall direct.
    Virginia Declaration of Rights, Section 5

    The above was written at a time when the legislature was a part-time enterprise, meeting infrequently, not always at the same site. A delegate would be elected to serve for the year, but most of his time would be spent at home, on his private business, dealing, just as his neighbors would, with the effects of any legislation he and his fellow delegates had passed. The transition to full-time legislatures, with members who not only don’t have civilian employment, but are seen as conflicted to the extent that they have any business interests, has destroyed the logic of founders such as Mason and Madison. If we are not to have term limits, then the dismantling of incumbency-protection legislation is imperative. Unfortunately, with McCain-Feingold and state legislation with similar effects, we seem to be building the barriers to what the pols call “de-election” even higher than they are.

    My favorite version of term limits would limit a legislator to a certain number of consecutive terms for the same office, but allow him to stand for that position after a term served by someone else. I wouldn’t prevent a termed-out Representative from being elected to the Senate, either. A sufficiently popular politician could still make a career in government, but not if he attached himself like a barnacle to a safe House seat for 12 terms, never chancing a run for a higher office.

    If your state still has a part-time legislature, you may be able to get away without term limits, as the members are theoretically capable of making a living in Real Life, should the day come that they are compelled to cast a vote that may lead to defeat at the polls. Full time legislatures without term limits is a recipe for capture of the process by lifers with safe seats, special interests and their lobbyists, public employee unions, state contractors, etc., etc.

    A constitutional provision making an experienced legislator (temporarily) ineligible to run for his old seat is no more unjust than a residency requirement, nor an age-requirement, nor any other requirement the people see as prudent.

    Kevin

  8. Well, I think term limits are wrong for two reasons. People have the right to vote for Senator Foghorn if they want to. Now, Senator Foghorn may be a blowhard spendthrift, BUT he’s the man that they want. It’s the voter’s call.

    Secondly, with term limits we empower the likes of ME. I am a government bureaucrat. No one elected me. And I have some say in policy. Term limits means that elected officials will be less experienced than their staff. I’m not sure that that is good.

  9. one of my co-workers says he always votes against the sitting pol!

    one idea would be to prohibit ALL incumbents from running – there won’t be a consequent term. So, at the end of their term, they will go back and become a part of the citizenry. If they want, they can run again the next time as a challenger (against another challenger).

    it still has the drawback of “limiting the selection available to the people”.

    oh, well … it aint gonna happen.

  10. zorel, I love your idea. Maybe we should name it the Grover Cleveland Act (he spanked me on two, non-consecutive occasions, ya’ know).

  11. I’ve never liked term limits simply on the grounds that if I like someone I don’t want to be told I can’t vote for that person.

    I’m starting to develop a suspicion (not reaching the level of theory) that term limits places more power in the parties and lobbiests than it returns to the people. As term limited candidates run they require ever more capital and knowledge, the source of which is supplied by the parties and lobbiests. As the newly elected reach the capitols they are forced to learn their jobs quickly, which means finding support. That support often comes in the form of lobbiests, who are not term limited, and are liable to be better placed to “play” a new official.

  12. Don’t they do that anyway? Once a politician sees the havoc he’s wreaked, he can just decide to not run anymore, and the next guy gets stuck raising the taxes.

    No, I don’t think that’s likely to happen at all.

  13. one idea would be to prohibit ALL incumbents from running – there won’t be a consequent term

    Oh, goody. A Legislative branch that is 100% unaccountable to the voters. Sounds like a lot of fun.

  14. Interesting paradox.

    Is it right to use state power to protect people from effectively using state power?

    There’s probably good arguments in the same vein that there’s good arguments for quadrupling the amount of stairs it takes to climb capitol hill or force proceedings to take place underwater.

    Anything to slow the bastards down.

  15. Do the anti-term-limits people here support repeal of the presidential term limits amendment? (Number?) I’m not sure I don’t. Would we have had Reagan for another 4? Clinton would have been a lock had he chose to run again.

  16. “Term limits means that elected officials will be less experienced than their staff. I’m not sure that that is good.”

    The elected official could just replace the entire staff of the previous regime with complete novices. Maybe it’s more chaotic, but I’m not sure that that is not good. At least it limits the empowerment of the unelected government bureaucrats. Not likely, but every POTUS does it with his cabinet.

  17. Mo,

    Actually, Grover Cleveland won the popular vote 3 times in a row. The second time, he lost the elctoral college vote by a narrow margin to James Garfield, who died in office and was succeeded by Chester Arthur.

    I’ve always been against term limits, including Presidential term limits. We already have term limits. They are called elections.

    But people have a point about the McCain-Feingold imcumbent protection law. I never thought I would live to see the day when criticizing a sitting pol would be illegal. And now, 60 days prior to the election, you cannot criticize a pol by name on any specific issue unless you coordinate with the opposition – even if you can’t stand the opposition either.

    I say, let people give whatever they want to campaigns, end public financing, and enforce disclosure rules. Also, someone ought to be able to use modern technology to create some impartial method of drawing Congressional Districts. There is no excuse for gerrymandering with modern day technology and mathematical theory.

  18. What if I want to vote for Arnold Schwarzenegger for President? Or the Olsen twins for the Senate?

  19. Scott Harris,

    I remember hearing about some software (on NPR a few years ago) that would redraw the districts for some government agency to satisfy whatever criteria they wanted. Want to have no more than one Hispanic in the state legislature? There it is. So, yes, the software exists.

  20. Also, someone ought to be able to use modern technology to create some impartial method of drawing Congressional Districts

    Of course this is possible and in fact has been done, but as long as legislatures are in charge of drawing their own districts, they won’t give up that power.

  21. Term limits serve one important function I din’t really see mentioned here. From my point of view the most important one. They keep the institution seperate from the identity of any one person. One of the most herioc things anyone has ever down for this country was when G Washington stepped down after 2 terms allowing the institution to take root in something other than the fame of one man. Charismatic leaders are historically unreliable at best, and in this country where we were started off with an excellent set of institutions, the institutions are definately more reliable than the leaders.

  22. I believe that Iowa uses a computer model to draw its districts. If I recall the districts are fairly competitive as a result.

  23. If not term limits, then what do we do to dismantle the permanent political class we are currently plagued with? Does it revolt anyone else that that wanna-be aristocrats who were born and breed for political life–like the Kennedys or the Bushs–get to hold office rather than the average American?

    Discussion?

  24. If the rationale for a president to be term limited is “acceptable” every other office should be term limited as well. While presidents might have once been unduly powerful we have witnessed two presidents impeached in the last 30 years. That doesn’t indicate too much power now does it?

    I favor term limits simply because it doesn’t seem particularly healthy for anyone to stay in one job for decades. Today, if someone is a true “statesman” they can do a radio, tv or lecture circuit gig pretty easily to keep their valuable ideas in circulation while they take a legislative hiatus. It would probably do them as much good as it would us.

    By the way, does ANY politician come to mind when you think of society “missing” someone’s legislative “genius” for a few years?
    Ted Kennedy? Newt Gingrich? George Mitchell?
    Seriously. Would we have “missed” any legislator’s pure genius much in the last 50 years had they sat out an election or two?

  25. As to amr’s question about the 2-term limit for the presidency, I would allow a former 2-termer to run for Pres. or VP, but make him wait at least one term to run again. If this were current law, Bill Clinton would have been ineligible in the 2000 election, but could run this year. Wouldn’t “W” versus “Bubba” be a HELL of a battle? As a practical matter, Presidents are often older than these two when first elected, and after 8 years in office the job takes such a toll on them that they are visably aged by it. It will be the rare Ex-Pres who will set out to reclaim the top spot, or be called on by his party to lead them again.

    deron is also correct about the Iowa plan for redrawing congressional districts. Incumbents of both of the major parties are too self-interested to do the job that well, which is why plans legislatures concoct are so frequently taken to court.

    Kevin

  26. If we didn’t have so much gerrymandering I might be less sympathetic to term limits. It’s all well and good to say as a matter of principle that we should have the right to re-elect a politician as many times as we want. But in practice they rig the elections via gerrymandering. Sure, the voters still pick the politicians, but only after the politicians have picked the voters. That’s hardly a free and open electoral process.

    And the lack of political competition hasn’t produced all that many high-quality people whom I’d want to see re-elected anyway. Sure, there are a few, but it’s not like we’re overflowing with decent people who were forced out because of term limits.

    Let’s get some more competitive elections, and then we can talk about repealing term limits, which are currently the only mechanism for getting fresh faces in office.

    BTW, on the subject of political competition, for those who want a wider range of competitive choices in elections, you might want to check out:

    http://www.approvalvoting.org

  27. I gotta tell ya, if I was Clinton, I would have run in 2000 anyway, and gone straight to the Supreme Court, arguing that if Federal term limits for senators and representatives were prima facie unconstitutional, then so was the term limit on the presidency. Would’ve been an interesting battle.

  28. Phil,
    Hard for something in the Constitution to be unconstitutional. By definition and all.

  29. If not term limits, then what do we do to dismantle the permanent political class we are currently plagued with?

    The same thing we do to dismantle the permanent legal class, permanent plumber class, permanent engineering class, permanent garbage-collector class, et. al.

    NOTHING AT ALL WHATSOEVER. Who gives a rat’s ass if your Congressman has been in office for 60 years, if he’s the guy 51% of the electorate wants in office? How is “we desperately need to replace the experienced representative with a clueless newbie the majority of us don’t actually want” a sane rule of thumb for a democracy? *Somebody* has to run to damn government. It does perform necessary functions, and it DOES take experience to learn how to do that properly.

    You people who think that government will magically become cheaper, better, or less intrusive if we deliberately go out of our way to staff it with complete incompetents really need to get a clue. The fact that it is possible to have a *career* in politics is the only reason anyone intelligent, competent, or capable of seeing long-term consequences ever runs for office.

    Here’s a thought experiment for you: imagine how a typical company would be run if it implemented a policy of “mandatory retirement after four years of employment”.

  30. Term limits are good because they prevent the entrenchment of incumbents detrimental to the electorate. Term limits are bad because quality legislators are prevented from continuing their good works. Wait! How about a little from column A, and a bit from column B?

  31. “From a democratic perspective, the primary function of term limits is to prevent people from electing the person they want to.”-Dan

    From where do you derive the principle that people should always get what they want? The primary principle of constitutional government is that the electorate should not get what it wants, if the desire is ultimately harmful to society and the people’s liberties. You can disagree about whether unlimited terms are harmful or not, but the lectorate not getting what it wants is not a legitimate objection.

  32. “It does perform necessary functions, and it DOES take experience to learn how to do that properly.”

    Government ultimately is about the exercise of power. Experience in running government is experience in exercising power. Power ultimately corrupts even the best men. A career politician who never escapes the halls of power for a healthier climate is, more likely than not, to be an extremely corrupt politician (Sen. Byrd comes to mind). This is a bad thing for the political health of the state.

  33. The Dan’s of the world refuse to grapple with these two points:

    1.) We deny majorities the power to elect someone who doesn’t meet the constitutional restrictions on a candidate all the time. One can be disallowed because he is not a resident of the district, is too young, is not a citizen, is a convicted felon whose rights have not been restored, or, in some cases, has already served in the office to the extent that the law allows. Pure democracy would allow us to vote in a fifteen-year-old non-resident alien. We don’t have a pure democracy. Good for us.

    2.) Not all term limit schemes permanently bar experienced candidates from running. Besides the fact that a termed-out member of a lower house could run for the upper house, or governor, or switch from state to federal office, plans that only restrict consecutive terms, but not total time served, could actually provide us with more elections with experienced politicians challenging incumbents or putting themselves up for open seats, after a temporary disqualification has expired.

    Ideally, I would want a legislature to have a mix of experienced members and new blood, and for gerrymandering to be replaced by non-partisan reapportionment on technical grounds. It is high time the voters choose the candidates again.

    Our state lost a House seat in the last census. Our city went from being split between two districts, to having only one congresscritter. Rather than battle the other incumbent for the seat, one of the reps tried to run for governor, but didn’t get nominated. He then successfully ran for mayor, defeating the council president who had been elevated to Acting Mayor a few months earlier. Just to make things more confusing, the defeated Acting Mayor is making rumbles about running for Congress, as the member who everyone supposed would run for yet another term decided to retire. I didn’t particularly like any of these candidates, but no one could argue that they weren’t experienced.

    Of course, I’d really prefer legislators to be required to gather revocable proxies from individual citizens, but that’s another topic.

    Kevin

  34. From where do you derive the principle that people should always get what they want?

    Did you notice the part where I said “from a democratic perspective”?

    The primary principle of constitutional government is that the electorate should not get what it wants, if the desire is ultimately harmful to society and the people’s liberties.

    Um, no, that’s completely wrong. The primary principle of constitutional democracy is that the electorate should not get what it wants if what it wants is unconstitutional. Completely subjective concepts like “What is harmful to society and other people’s liberties” cannot be the criteria used, because government in which the will of the people is dismissed on non-objective grounds is tyranny, not democracy.

    In any case, “constitutional government” has absolutely no relevance to what we’re talking about here, since (a) our constitution doesn’t specify term limits for anyone but the President and (b) I wasn’t talking about what the government has a right to do, but about what is democratic.

    You can disagree about whether unlimited terms are harmful or not, but the lectorate not getting what it wants is not a legitimate objection.

    You couldn’t possibly be more wrong.

    There is no objection more inherently legitimate, in a democracy, than the fact that the people didn’t get what they wanted. The only way this argument could possibly be illegitimate is if you established that “what they wanted” was unconstitutional (e.g., if “what they wanted” was draconian free speech restrictions, or for Bill Clinton to be President-for-life). You have failed to do this, ergo your complaint doesn’t pan out.

  35. The SCOTUS delivered a gerrymandering decision today. They will let it continue, but haven’t shut the door to future challenges.

    WaPo has an article here:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A49834-2004Apr28.html

    Yeah, you have to register.

    Kevin

  36. .The Dan’s of the world refuse to grapple with these two points: We deny majorities the power to elect someone who doesn’t meet the constitutional restrictions on a candidate all the time

    What I said was “From a democratic perspective, the primary function of term limits is to prevent people from electing the person they want to.”

    You reply by saying that I “refuse to grapple” with the fact that we do other things that also prevent people from electing the person they want to. The fact that we do that sort of thing all the time in other areas is completely irrelevant to my point; that’s why I didn’t mention it.

    It’s as if I said “lemons are yellow” and you replied “what the Dans of the world refuse to grapple with is the fact that bananas and canaries are yellow”.

    Not all term limit schemes permanently bar experienced candidates from running.

    I never said they did. What was your point?

  37. Government ultimately is about the exercise of power. Experience in running government is experience in exercising power. Power ultimately corrupts even the best men.

    So we should ban people who’ve been judges, or executives, or managers, or foremen, or bureaucrats, or coaches, or religious authorities, from holding office as well? Politicians are not the only people who wield power. Indeed, politicans are far *more* accountable to the people they hold power over than anyone on the list I just gave — and, therefore, presumably far less likely to be corrupt.

    The reality, of course, is that power doesn’t corrupt people. Power just lets corrupt people — which is, basically, almost everyone in the world — get away with things they otherwise couldn’t. This is not a problem solvable by term limits.

    A career politician who never escapes the halls of power for a healthier climate is, more likely than not, to be an extremely corrupt politician (Sen. Byrd comes to mind).

    Ok, that’s about the single worst example you could possibly have come up with. Robert Byrd started out as a high-ranking member of an illegal terrorist organization, dedicated to opposing fundamental human rights for minorities, that was responsible for hundreds, if not thousands, of murders. A decades-spanning career in politics has produced a man whose worst crimes these days are “spending too much money in West Virginia” and “babbling incoherently about the War in Iraq”.

  38. Dan:

    Some of the STATE constitutions do, in fact, provide for term limits.

    Kevin

  39. I actually wouldn’t mind Supreme Court term limits. Right now we have a situation where every June the country waits and wonders, and at some point we’ll probably have several retirements in a row due to the demographics of the Court.

    Eighteen year terms would provide nice, steady, gradual turn-over. Every 2 years, in an off-year (no election) a vacancy would open up. No possibility of reappointment (except maybe to Chief Justice, I suppose, but that’s a minor point either way). Since there is no higher court to over-rule the Supremes, it seems appropriate in a system of checks and balances that they be subject to regular but gradual turnover.

    I know some people instinctively fear any proposal that deviates from the current set of institutions. First, I’m not proposing this for other federal judges, since they are already subject to scrutiny from higher courts. Second, those who fear that any deviation from the current structure of our institutions should consider that Justices would still be nominated by the President and confirmed or rejected by the Senate, assuring some checks and balances in the appointment process.

    I know, it’s unlikely to happen, but I still think it would be a good idea.

  40. Some of the STATE constitutions do, in fact, provide for term limits

    And in states where that’s the case, term limits are obviously constitutional. However, even in states where that is the case, term limits are prevent people from voting for the candidate of their choice — so, again, I’m left wondering why you think this refutes something I said.

  41. “The primary principle of constitutional democracy is that the electorate should not get what it wants if what it wants is unconstitutional.”-Dan

    OK, so you have no argument against term limits if they are actually in the constitution or have been put into law by constitutional means? Sorry, the principle is that the law rules first, not the mere will of the electorate. You have to prove that term limits are bad law. So, again, from where do you get the notion that democracy should reign supreme?

    “There is no objection more inherently legitimate, in a democracy,…”-Dan

    This country is NOT a democracy, therefore the objection is not legitimate.

    “So we should ban people who’ve been judges, or executives, or managers, or foremen, or bureaucrats, or coaches, or religious authorities, from holding office as well?”-Dan

    No. I don’t want “ban” politicians, but I do think that permanant fixtures in political office do not serve the cause of good governance well, and a timely turnover in personnel is a healthy thing. Also, most of those positions you mention are of very limited power and the people under their authority are there voluntarily (I am not referring to the judges and bureaucrats). Government has expansive and virtually omnipresent power, it is difficult to escape when it goes bad.

    “The reality, of course, is that power doesn’t corrupt people. Power just lets corrupt people…get away with things they otherwise couldn’t.”-Dan

    Well of course power attracts the already corrupt*. However, I’ve seen too many eager reform minded politicians start off well, and after a couple of terms become jaded defenders of the status quo they originally set off to challenge.

    “Ok, that’s about the single worst example you could possibly have come up with. Robert Byrd…”-Dan

    I picked Byrd, not only for his corruption, but for the boot-licking deference his colleagues on both sides of the aisle show him merely for his longetivity in office and despite his nefarious history.

    * I fail to see how this helps your argument against term limits. If term limits are bad because they do not allow politicians to gain experience necessary to get good at their jobs, but nearly every politician is already corrupt going in. Why would you want bad people to remain in office long term and therefore get really good at political corruption?

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