Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Term limits

Jerry Stratton, July 10, 2007

I just came back from the shopping center and noticed a person asking for signatures to get term limits on the ballot in California. I don’t like term limits. They’re superficial. They don’t solve any problems, they only shift the symptoms around. Why do we want term limits, when we already have the power to vote candidates out when we don’t want them any more?

The arguments in favor of term limits boil down to power and choices:

  • Donor money favors incumbents.
  • The two-party system doesn’t offer true choice.

But term limits don’t solve either of those problems. They do nothing about the first one and they only exacerbate the second by forcing good legislators out along with the bad.

Money favors incumbents because they have power that they can offer to donors. That doesn’t change with term limits. All it does is shift the reward from re-election to something else such as post-service jobs and gifts. As long as it is easy for legislators to offer legislation that favors their donors, the problem will remain.

If we want to reduce the incumbent’s advantage, we need to reduce the amount of money the incumbent has available to hand out. Inessential services need not be funded by the federal government; and essential services can be funded through voucher-style plans that put the power of distribution directly in the hands of the voter.

We also need to limit the ability to pass donor-purchased legislation in secret. The removal of earmarks is one big step towards this, and a database of spending is another. When a bridge to nowhere can’t be hidden in a 200-page bill, but rather has to be its own bill, it’s going to be a lot harder for a legislator to offer that bridge as a quid-pro-quo.

Those solutions will be a lot harder to enact than term limits, but they have the advantage of being real solutions that reduce the incentive to buy representatives.

If you don’t like the choices that our current two-party system offers, term limits won’t change anything other than the names. Further, term limits will ensure that when Democrats or Republicans accidentally offer a candidate you do like, they’ll be term-limited just like everyone else, and the odds will favor a bad successor.

In 2007, even what’s shaping up to be our third-party options are looking a whole lot like the big two.

If we want to encourage the parties to offer real choices, we need to remove the artificial roadblocks to third-party elections. Restrictions on ballot access make it far more difficult for third parties to get on the ballot than for Democrats or Republicans; campaign finance laws make it more difficult for third parties to fund their campaigns than for Democrats or Republicans. Removing these obstacles would go a long way towards ensuring that our elections are regularly infused with new ideas, and that the two main parties would have to address these new ideas.

Presidential term limits

How well do term limits work for presidential elections? The most common candidate to follow a term-limited president is that president’s vice president. It’s hardly increasing our options when George Bush follows Ronald Reagan and Al Gore follows Bill Clinton.

Was a four-term FDR presidency really so bad? Would it have been better to have the Democrats focussed on choosing a new candidate in 1944? Would a three-term Reagan presidency really have been so bad? It would have changed the entire dynamic of the last eight years: it’s easy enough to understand why Saddam Hussein would think that a Bush I real-politic administration would stand aside when he invaded Kuwait; even with many of the same cabinet in place, it’s hard to imagine Hussein thinking a Reagan administration would stand aside.

And while I personally would not have wanted a third Clinton term, those who approved of him did not seem to approve of him as the lesser of two evils but rather as a positively good candidate. And remember that Clinton never received a majority of the popular vote. If he hadn’t been term-limited out, his opponents might have chosen to confront this and offer a candidate that the majority could support.

Why do we really want term limits?

In a healthy system, we wouldn’t care about term limits. It seems to me that if we don’t like the choices we’re being presented with, we should look at why that happens. We should solve the underlying problem rather than shift symptoms around.

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