Backlash grows against term limits

New Yorkers debate, in true New York fashion, merits of seeing 35 City Council seats turn over.

Term limits are under assault in New York and across the country. And that infuriates Sandy Aboulafia.

Twice the affable Brooklyn activist has tried to unseat an entrenched incumbent city councilman and failed. But the single mother of three now believes her time has come.

The reason: The 14-term incumbent, along with his war chest and name recognition, has been term-limited out of the running.

That's if he and other current City Council members don't repeal term limits - which voters approved twice by popular referendum during the 1990s.

The incumbents believe it's a question of good government. "Term limits will only succeed in turning back the clock to a time when the City Council was impotent and ineffective, much as it was in 1978 when I first took office," said Councilman Stanley Michels at a 9-1/2 hour hearing last week at City Hall. It got so heated at one point that a City Council candidate had to be forcibly ejected.

The drama being played out in New York is being repeated in states and municipalities around the country.

From Oregon to Michigan to Louisiana, term-limits legislation that was all the rage in the early and mid-1990s is under assault by critics. They say the great rush to replace incumbents with fresh new faces has weakened the nation's local legislative bodies, creating such debacles as the electricity-deregulation law in California.

Last month, the US Supreme Court overturned a Missouri "scarlet letter" law, which labeled candidates on the ballot as antiterm limits if they refused to support the idea. The court ruled the law attempted to "dictate electoral outcomes."

Eight other states had such laws, which have either been invalidated by lower courts or declared unenforceable.

In New York, where term limits for the first time will open up 35 of the City Council's 51 seats, one critic fears the "mass slaughter of experience" in the nation's largest municipal government. And 22 city councilors have banded together to fight to repeal the law.

Knee-jerk reaction?

Overall, critics contend term limits are a well-intentioned but misguided, knee-jerk reaction to political dissatisfaction.

"Term limits are a ridiculous idea," says John Hibbing, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska. "I'm all for a little new blood, but that's another way of saying 'rookies,' who tend not to have the needed experience. Legislating is a lot more difficult than many ordinary citizens imagine."

But supporters maintain that term limits are the best way to pry open a moribund electoral process. They say it would let in more women and minorities, as well as create a font of new ideas to attack old, entrenched problems.

Daedre Levin is so excited by the prospects created in New York that she and a friend have founded a political action committee to help candidates who are "good" on women's issues take advantage of the new political terrain.

"This is huge. Term limits is creating a whole new crop of candidates, and we're going to take this opportunity to get women's issues out there," says Ms. Levine, cofounder of Women Pac.

The battles are also reviving discussions about the meaning of "democracy." For instance, in New York supporters of term limits claim it's undemocratic to ignore the will of the people, who have supported them overwhelmingly.

Critics counter that it's undemocratic to deprive the voter of his or her right to reelect an effective representative. Not only that, they add, this country is no democracy; it's a republic, and elected legislators have a responsibility to sometimes save the people from themselves.

The battles have generated lots of heat and smoke, but very little light. Since 1990, 19 states have enacted some form of term limits for elected officials. More than 3,000 municipalities have them as well. Still, little nonpartisan research has actually been done on their impact.

"There's been some work on why we have term limits and less work on the consequences for policy," says Robert Stein, dean of the School of Social Sciences at Rice University in Houston.

So Professor Stein undertook a study, and his findings will not give solace to term-limit supporters.

First, he found that support for term limits was dictated not by the high ideals of increasing diversity and access to the electoral process, but by partisan identification. Republicans tend to support term limits when Democrats are the entrenched incumbents in power, and vice versa.

"The best way to put this is, that if you're a Yankee fan, you don't want the Mets in the World Series," he says.

Effects on local government

Stein also looked at the impact term limits have had on city governments. He found that they ended up breaking down cooperation between municipalities, where experienced lawmakers once worked with one another in grant-seeking and on legislative proposals.

It also increased inefficiency, by replacing legislative cooperation and "common credit-claiming" with a far more competitive and less productive legislative atmosphere.

"There's beginning to amass a compelling argument that term limits is a big problem that's only going to get worse as we run through the generation of experienced politicians," says Stein.

But such arguments do not quell the enthusiasm of supporters like Paul Jacob, the national director of US Term Limits, which is based in Washington. He still jets around the country from Missouri to Oregon arguing against what he calls the arrogance of entrenched power.

"It's hard to imagine anything else that could better prove the need for term limits than this latest maneuver in New York," says Mr. Jacob. "The voters passed this overwhelmingly, twice. This is a moral issue. When voters in our country cast a ballot, it should count."

He points out that polls on term limits continually show public support of more than 70 percent. And legislative efforts to overturn them, from Utah to Arizona to Missouri, have failed.

That's exactly what candidate Aboulafia is counting on to keep New York's City Council from repealing the law. She says she's now ready to run and "go out there and knock 'em dead."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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