Term Limits: Right Reform, Wrong Reasons

AS an advocate for rotation in office for local, state, and national elected officials, I am frequently asked to defend the popular case for term limits. Term limitation is the right reform for America, yet it is frequently advocated by politicians, pundits, and average citizens for the wrong reasons.

America's 18th-century revolutionaries viewed rotation in office as a tenet of radical democracy. They believed that rotation would check the excesses of public power, increase the opportunity for citizens to serve in public office, and strengthen the linkages between representatives and constituents. Rotation remains an essential means of keeping government as near to the people as possible, a potent remedy for "permanent government" and the professionalization of American politics.

Opponents claim that the need for greater legislative turnover is vastly overstated. They argue that congressional term limits will rob voters of their choice on election day; increase the power of special interests, legislative staff, and the executive branch; and squander needed legislative leadership, experience, and expertise. Though meritorious, each argument has a persuasive rebuttal.

However, I am less troubled by the mistaken reasons for opposing term limits than I am by the wrong reasons for supporting them. Should we adopt term limits for the wrong reasons, dashed expectations and heightened citizen frustration will be the legacy of this worthy reform. For example:

1. Incumbents deserve term limits. Voters are fed up with the antics of America's legislators. The nation goes without policies to remedy the problems of unemployment, economy recovery, health care, AIDS, energy dependence, and environmental degradation, while state and national legislators feed eagerly at the public trough and manage their personal careers. For many Americans, state and national lawmakers have "earned" term limits as their just punishment.

Anger and retribution are poor motivations for constitutional reform, however. The principle of rotation in office is not retributive. By restraining the abuse of public power that stems from "placeholding" in office, rotation is preventative. By opening up public office to citizen participation and enhancing the quality of representation, rotation is a tool for civic empowerment.

2. Term limitation is the "silver bullet" remedy for what ails America. Term limits will open up the governing process and begin to deprofessionalize American politics. But term limits are only the first step in a lengthy reform movement necessary to make America governable again. So many other pressing political problems, such as divided government, statism, the decline of political parties, politicized courts, and the absence of executive leadership, are beyond a term-limit remedy. Anyone supporting te rm limits as a "cure-all" is destined to be disappointed.

3. Term limits will produce more Republican-controlled legislatures. Some Republicans endorse term limits as a way to throw entrenched Democrats out of office and replace them with Republicans in state legislatures and Congress. Contrary to Republican hopes (and Democratic fears), though, term limits will probably effect both parties about equally. Term limits will stir the legislative pot, but there is no reason to expect term limits to revolutionize the partisan makeup of any legislature.

4. Term limits will reduce the size of government. Conservatives are convinced that term limits will reduce the size of government by diminishing the incentives of entrenched incumbents to approve budgets responsive to the financial demands of special interests. There are no inherent reasons why novice legislators should be more frugal than senior lawmakers, however.

Term limits will change the incentive structure for policymaking. Faced with shorter periods within which to solve national maladies, legislators will produce different policies under limited terms. Less time spent serving constituents - the "permanent campaign" for reelection - will also mean more time to tackle matters of national importance. Policymaking under term limits will be different, but not necessarily in the direction of a less expansive government.

Term limitation is solidly grounded in America's commitment to republican government. Term limits should be enacted because of that commitment, and not in response to spurious motivations or unreasonable expectations.

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