Mimsy Were the Borogoves

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

Term limits, incumbency, and the permanent state

Jerry Stratton, July 3, 2024

Man Controlling Trade: “Man Controlling Trade is the name given to two monumental equestrian statues created by Michael Lantz for the Federal Trade Commission Building in Washington, D.C… The works were dedicated in 1942.”; Washington, DC; free trade

More and more, the horse seems to be controlling the rider.

More and more, I do not trust calls for term limits on elected representatives, or for dispersing the permanent bureaucracy. It seems to me that both of these potentially useful proposals are being co-opted by the permanent state to weaken the ability of voters to change the system through elections. They’re deliberately designed to weaken elected officials while strengthening the permanent state.

Superficially, a lot of the calls for term limits seem, in my opinion, to miss the point entirely. First, and biggest, a long period in government results in the officeholder identifying more with government than with voters. Second, and related, is that a long period in government means that the officeholder has no experience in common with voters; even officeholders who started with experience outside government see that experience become more and more antiquated.

Most term limit-style proposals don’t just not fix those problems, they exacerbate them. They encourage, not gaining experience in the private sector, but moving from one office to another and thus identifying even more with government.

This tendency is so bad that it often becomes its own version of the Peter Principle, that people rise to the level of their own incompetence. A governor is doing a great job as governor? Get them out of the governor’s office and into the race for the White House! This has become so ingrained in the political class that just about every successful governor is already planning on a Presidential run in their second term.

Even outside of governorships—which is where term limits for elected officials makes the most sense—it often seems that the moment a successful representative gains a name, they are instantly neutered by moves into the federal bureaucracy or even more powerless offices like the vice presidency. This appears to be what happened with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and what the bureaucracy tried to do when they attempted to bribe Arizona’s Kari Lake to move into DC’s bureaucratic event horizon.

Lincoln: the men who pervert the Constitution: Abraham Lincoln: The people of these United States are the rightful masters of both congresses and courts, not to overthrow the Constitution, but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.; United States Constitution; Abraham Lincoln; rebellion

The first example could be solved through a requirement that “No person may stand as a candidate for any federal office who holds any federal (or state?) office or employment.” It would require that candidates not literally remain in office their entire lives unless they choose to devote themselves to a specific office. Whether the latter is more beneficial than problematic is a separate issue, and one worth debating.

It would also encourage, though not require, finishing the term an official is elected for before running for something else. It would encourage successful governors, for example, to build their credibility over multiple terms instead of immediately jumping to a different office.

It is an entirely different thing to be a professional politician than to be a professional senator, or representative, or governor. Our current system encourages professional politicians, as if “politician” were the job title rather than how the office is obtained.

It would also help keep candidates from using the power of one office to gain another. This is most obviously dangerous when we look at secretaries of state, who manage elections, running for higher office in their state. Unsurprisingly, such candidates often win, despite all the claims that there is no fraud in elections.

The biggest problem I see with term limit proposals, however, is that they make no attempt to limit the power of the unelected permanent state. If politicians are forbidden multiple terms but staffers are not, it is the staffers who will run the office, not the officeholder. The very first term limit needs to limit not the politician, but the people working for the politician.

No one should be able to work for the government longer than the person who was elected to be their boss. That is a recipe for rule by bureaucracy rather than democracy. Remove the long-term bureaucrat, and the incumbency problem may well go away.

That term limits often seem to be an attempt by the bureaucracy to increase their power against officeholders is reflected in another common proposal: spreading the federal behemoth outside of Washington, DC.

The more I think about it, the less I like proposals to move bureaucracies out of the capitol. I have proposed spreading out legislators, both on the state level and the federal level, and that is a far better idea. Legislators need to stay close to their constituents. They need to identify more with their constituents than with the central bureaucracy. Requiring legislators to live in and vote from their district will be a sea change in how government works.

Asimov: the fall of civilization: Isaac Asimov: The fall of civilization is a massive thing, and not easily fought. It is marked by a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing of caste, and a damming of curiosity.; civilization; New Barbarism; re-primitivization; Isaac Asimov

But moving the administrative state out into the hinterlands is a sea change of an entirely different sort. Where are we going to spread giant bureaucracies where they won’t affect the voting in whatever locality and state they’ve been moved to? The IRS has nearly 80,000 employees and is planning on hiring tens of thousands more over the next couple of years. Move such a large federal department to Austin, for example, and the balance in all of the surrounding areas, including my home town, would topple in favor of more government control of everything, from schools to employment to voting to the very form of local government itself.

I could easily see the permanent state crafting a strategic deployment of such bureaucracies to battleground states in a manner that would vastly change the backbone of United States democracy.

There is a reason the founders put Washington, DC, in its own non-voting locality. They knew it was going to attract people who favored central control, and they wanted to isolate the naturally totalitarian tendency such a concentration would cause. We can see it now as the DC bureaucracy moves out into Maryland and Northern Virginia and turns those states into rubber stamps for the unelected federal bureaucracy.

This is exactly what the founders sought to avoid.

Rather than moving the bureaucracies out of DC, move the legislators out to their constituents. Rather than limit the terms of elected officials, limit the power of the unelected bureaucracy by limiting how long any individual can remain in the bureaucracy.

In response to Term limits: Term limit proposals avoid real problems. They’re a superficial solution at best. Efforts directed towards enacting term limits waste time and money that could be spent solving the underlying problems: a lack of new ideas and an ability to hide legislative bribery.