It takes chutzpah for Michael Bloomberg to try to throw out New York City's term limits and seek a third stint as mayor. But with Wall Street in danger of becoming Skid Row, the popular mayor says he wants one more opportunity to lead. He should get it, but not because he, and only he, can save Gotham.
Mr. Bloomberg (an independent) should be allowed to seek a third term because that would provide voters the fullest choice at the ballot box next year. They can decide then whether this billionaire product of Wall Street is the best candidate to rescue the city from the severe shaking of its financial sector.
There's no question, his maneuvering for a third term is so lit up with irony it would illumine Rockefeller Plaza at Christmas. Wasn't it Bloomberg who benefitted from the two-term restriction on his predecessor, Republican Rudolph Giuliani? In the 2001 election, many New Yorkers believed "Rudy" was best suited to carry on after the World Trade Center tragedy, and wished he could have run again.
Bloomberg himself has supported the city's two-term limit on elected officials, as has the speaker of the City Council, where legislation to extend the limit to three terms is expected to be introduced Oct. 7. With council members and the mayor benefitting, the change is expected to pass – in defiance of two successful voter referendums supporting the 15-year-old law.
Whether Bloomberg should go through the council or take the question back to voters is debatable. But the larger judgment on term limits no longer is.
Americans swooned for limits in the 1990s. In a "throw-the-bums-out" revolt, they rebelled against entrenched incumbents and gridlock in their state and city governments. Twenty-one states passed legislator term limits (mainly through ballot questions). Many cities did, too.
No one wants elected officials so encrusted by years in power that they can no longer feel and respond to the needs of voters. And no one benefits from an insider's game of mutual back scratching between lobbyists and legislators – except the special interests and lawmakers, of course. Even ancient Athens rotated membership in its council of 500 every year.
But an automatic broom that sweeps out a swath of elected officials, regardless of performance, denies voters the chance to decide for themselves. It absolves them of their democratic responsibility – thus furthering voter apathy that gives incumbents a leg up through energized voting minorities.
The risks of term limits outweigh the benefits. They remove experience and institutional knowledge and limit candidate choice.With no reelection prospects ahead, office-holders are tempted to go for the short-term policy play and ignore long-term issues. The revolving door pushes elected officials more quickly into lobbying or to seek other offices.
And so the tide on term limits is turning. Of the 21 states with restrictions, four have been reversed by courts and two by state legislatures. No new state term limits have been enacted since 2000.
Americans love time-saving devices, but auto-pilot democracy should not be one of them. Transparency, oversight, and elections are the way to keep office-holders in check.
Bloomberg enjoys approval ratings of about 70 percent. If he wants to test that in real time, he should be allowed to.