Term Limits: Political Boon or Monstrosity?

The theory that strictures will ensure honesty is flawed

By , Oliver H. Woshinsky is a professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine and is co-author of the book, "The Motivation of Politicians."

THE goofiest news to come out of campaign '92 is this: 14 states voted to limit terms for their members of Congress, while proceeding to return to Congress 95 percent of their incumbent legislators. Some six dozen of these reelected worthies have already served past the limit which their supporters enthusiastically adopted. The message is: Stop me before I vote again!

Never underestimate the power of an idea whose time has come, said Victor Hugo. I don't. The idea of term limits has arrived and is snowballing - gathering power and crushing reason and common sense. The unstoppable populism behind this idea will doubtless ensure that it becomes law everywhere. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised to see it shortly enshrined in the Constitution itself, via amendment. But, before its final triumph, let me voice a dissent.

Those trumpeting the virtues of term limits seem to have forgotten how democracy is supposed to work. When we put people into office, they don't avoid doing evil just because they are nice. Nor do they do what we want just because they have high ethical standards and a finely tuned sense of morality. Representative democracy works because officeholders want to get reelected, while voters want officeholders to do their bidding. Once you start with that basic premise, a rational reciprocity keeps everyone in line. Tinker with that logic, and you flirt with disaster.

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When democracy is working properly, government policies over time conform roughly to what a majority of people want. How can we be sure that result will occur? What guarantees the triumph of the popular will? Representative democracy provides a neat, simple answer. On average, those who represent their constituents correctly will be rewarded by reelection. Those who fail in their jobs will be punished by being turned out of office. Period.

Why should this system work? Because politicians wish to keep their jobs, even rise to higher ones. They continue to represent us for fear of being punished at the ballot box. If they had no hope of reward nor any fear of punishment (a condition term limits would create for many), why should these lame-duck leaders bother to do what we want them to? Why should they take popular feelings into account as they go about their assigned duties?

How do you, the reader, like the idea of government by entirely unchecked politicians? Most of us are deeply suspicious of unchecked human nature. We would not rely on simple good will to curb human excesses. Instead, we prefer a system which ensures its curbing through institutional checks on ambition.

And elections are the most basic and profound check of all in a democratic system. Those who do a good job get to keep that job. Those who don't, get punished. We vote them out of office at the next opportunity. That threat of ejection is what keeps politicians honest. It is the voter's best weapon against arbitrary political behavior. If term limits became a national reality, one-third to one-half of our public officials would shortly reach the end of the ridiculously short terms the new referenda wish to impose on us. We would soon be living in a country where 30 percent or more of our leaders faced no electoral check on their behavior.

It gets worse. Under a term-limits system, half or more of our elected representatives could be largely unaccountable to the public, because many would face no serious competition for reelection in their last two legally allowed terms. Why would anyone waste political capital running against a popular incumbent? Serious challengers would just wait a mere two or four years for easier opportunities: legally mandated open seats.

Do we really want a government in which half of our leaders have no reason to act in the responsible, ear-to-the-ground manner we expect from our political representatives? Wouldn't it make more sense for us to drop this irresponsible proposal and start using our democratic privileges as they were meant to be used: to punish and reward the behavior of our political representatives? Use your vote to turn out those particular legislators who no longer deserve the reward of high office, but don't use a scy the to cut down the good with the bad.

This elitist proposal would force future generations to choose new representatives, even if most of the electorate continued to prefer incumbents. It aims at thwarting the majority will, in order to advance the agenda of those who cannot win political power legitimately: at the polls. Perhaps some people can reconcile this idea with democracy. I don't see it.

Voters of America, unite! You have nothing to lose but your own democratic powers.

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