The Trouble with Term Limits Radical Bleeding Heart image

Why Restrict Democracy?

Is Less Democracy the Answer? The fundamental problem with term limits is merely that they are anti-democratic. It is as if we as citizens are saying “Stop me before I vote again!” If voters like the way an official or legislator is doing the job, why should they not be allowed to keep him or her?

So why do people think that term limits are a good idea? They argue that incumbents have an unfair advantage in the campaign process. It is true that incumbents usually have the advantage of greater visibility (although that is not always an advantage—if things are not going well, they can be blamed for conditions that may not in fact be their fault).

But it all comes back to the enormous amounts of cash that candidates must raise. Incumbents, it is said, have a huge advantage when it comes to raising funds from all of the big money interests that hand out the gigantic wads of cash needed to win elections. So if you force the incumbents out after a short tenure, then all the candidates will begin on an equal footing.

Incumbent Power Is Not Necessarily Bad. Think about this. When the incumbent is tossed out, then all the candidates have an equal opportunity to beg for loot from the big money special interests. And this is good because . . . ? An incumbent not restricted by term limits, however, is indeed in a position of power—a position of power with respect to the special interests. They will give such an incumbent lots of dough even if they do not always get what they want. Even if they prefer the challenger (to whom they give even more money) they do not want to alienate the incumbent and feel obliged to give him money as well. Such an incumbent can listen politely and then vote her or his own conscience (assuming that they have the courage to do so).

(At least that used to be the case. The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling of the Supreme Court, which opened the floodgates for corporate cash in election campaigns, may have made it possible for corporations to swamp the airwaves with so much negative advertising that all politicians—and the citizens they are supposed to represent—are powerless against them.)

But that is why the special interests supported term limits. With term limits, incumbents no longer have any power over them. The fat cats hold all the cards.

Who Knows What Is Going On? There is another reason as well. Legislative bodies are complex organizations with intricate rules and complex histories. It takes a while to learn the ropes. If a legislator is limited to a four-year tenure (typical with term limits), by the times she knows what is going on, she is out. And knowing she will be out, she will be thinking mostly about her next possible job well before the four years is up. So the organization loses its history and continuity.

Well not quite. The history and continuity are still there, but it is now entirely in the hands of the lobbyists: the lobbyists working for those big buck special interests. They are the only ones who know what is going on and how to get things done. The legislators now dance entirely to their tune.

So as long as money is what dominates the election process, term limits just make things worse. Clearly what is needed is a way to make the politicians genuinely responsible to an informed citizenry, rather than to the moneybags. If that happened, term limits would do nothing but force out effective leaders.

It is worth noting, finally, that the disillusionment with term limits is not limited to liberals. Some conservatives have come to see that they merely hobble legislatures and make any kind of sensible work difficult or impossible. Here is Dan Haley of the Denver Post. And you can also check out an editorial of The Arizona Republic.

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