Term Limits

Government at all levels is perceived as being out of touch and inefficient. Elections are bought by incumbents with the power of money provided by special interest groups. Lawmakers we once respected are stripped naked before us, revealed as merely human after all, and not very pretty to look at in the light of day. The ship of state is in sorry tatters. Certainly something must change.

Turning out the incumbents, imposing term limits, that will show them, right? Let’s get some new blood in there, and shake the place up; blow out some of the cobwebs. So why am I not happy at the trend? 

I have three problems with the idea of term limits.

First, I don’t think it will really solve the problem. Already in California I read about state senators running for Assembly seats vacated by those running for the senate! If the purpose is to introduce new blood, I am afraid that instead we will still have the same old faces, just in different places.

Secondly, even if it does work, I don’t think that term limits will have the results expected by most of those in favor of the idea. I see rejoicing among the liberals because they see a lot of wealthy old conservatives getting forcibly moved on out. This should open up opportunities for the liberals to gain ground. Unfortunately many Democrats will also see their terms expire, and they will have to be replaced by new faces too. Here is the problem; a system that requires a constant supply of fresh candidates is going to favor the big money. It is very expensive these days to give a candidate enough exposure to be a serious contender in a major election, so candidates are going to be even more beholden to the special interests. We will have slick, well-rehearsed quickie candidates. We have elevated style so far over substance that we will be sitting ducks for the PR machine.

My third reason is that constantly changing the political officeholders enhances the power of both the bureaucracy and the lobbyists. Our elected representatives may not do too good a job keeping an eye on these people who already have huge amounts of power, but it will be even worse if they have to retire just when they are really getting to know the job. If lawmakers are coming and going the only people who know how things work are the people who are always there, most especially the lobbyists (whose ranks will now be swelled with termed-out former officeholders). Do we really want to increase the power of people over whom we have no control? People who are subject to no term limits, face no elections? 

If all this sounds too amorphous, consider that these bureaucrats run the IRS, the DMV and the Franchise Tax Board. The people we elect to office are a main line of defense against the power of these organizations, frail though that line may be. Term limits demand we lose the best along with the worst. 

I am not saying that everything is fine and that the people who are running things should not be challenged, but it is foolish to get rid of people simply because they have been in office a long time, irrespective of whether they are doing a good job. We are in danger not merely of throwing out the baby with the bath water, but of throwing out the baby and keeping the bath water.

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