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How to decideTerm limits have lately become a popular topic of conversation.  When a lot of folks start getting fed up with what’s happening in Washington, term limits are sometimes becomes strategy #1 for solving the problem.  But it’s like the idea of a flat tax or domestic drilling… it sounds good as a sound bite, but what does it really end up meaning, and why do we really think it’s going to help?

Frankly, I was a big supporter of the idea some years ago (back when Neal Smith represented my US House district in Congress), but I have figured out that the reason I was such a big supporter was specifically because of Neal Smith.  That is, I wanted him out of office, and term limits sounded like an easy way to accomplish it.  It was a specific, tactical, selfish reason.

I certainly recognize that there are other reasons, some of which are compelling.  Let’s make a list, shall we?

I don’t like the person who’s currently my (legislator, governor, etc.). From my own party, I’ve heard activists actually say “How else do we get rid of Tom Harkin (Senator from Iowa)?”.  Wow, so then what happens when we get someone in office who we actually like?  You can’t have it both ways… implementing term limits is not the way to move your agenda forward.  Term limits will likely cause us more difficulty in moving the agenda forward.  What you need is to bring candidates who can win elections.

Two terms (or one, or three, whatever the number of the month is) are enough for anyone to accomplish what they need to accomplish. If the purpose of sending someone to represent us in Washington or our state capital is to accomplish some singular thing, this might actually make sense.  But the purpose of the legislatures includes doing a good deal of work that must be done year in and year out… budgeting, reviewing, investigating, approving appointments and treaties, etc.  In the middle of all that drudgery comes those “one things” that tend to make our heads spin, like reacting (too quickly in my opinion) to economic events, safety issues and foreign threats, and finding ways to create new bureaucracy.  If my congressman is going to work on some big “thing”, I might prefer he stay there a long time working on it.

Career politicians are too entrenched and don’t connect with their constituents. Some folks think that after a few terms, politicians start to become self-indulgent, arrogant and ignore the public.  I can pretty much guarantee that most of them start that way day one.  I certainly cannot tolerate one who considers themselves better than those they represent, and I’m all for moving them out and replacing them with persons of better character.  But, if there really is such a big disconnect between the politician and the voters, why do the voters continue to elect the same person?  Could it be that they actually are connecting with their constituents?

Career politicians get rich from the job, perks and outside opportunities. And that’s a problem because?  Even one term legislators get life-time privileges.  This argument is an attempt to associate success with greed.  It just doesn’t seem credible or relevant.

Career politicians are more easily influenced by lobbyists and other special interests. That seems like another rookie issue, perhaps more so.  There’s nothing like walking into Washington DC for the first time and becoming drunk with the sense of self-importance, especially when there are people eager to make you feel special by asking you to co-sponsor your first bill!

Career politicians are too distracted by their re-election campaigns to do their work properly. Do they have the raw time to fund-raise and campaign?   If it really is an issue it should be easy to resolve: set aside an appropriate amount of time for fund-raising and campaigning and keep the work within that time frame.  Congress already typically adjourns in late summer for this purpose.

Career politicians are too worried about getting re-elected to do the right thing. This argument is the only one that I find truly compelling.  The real question becomes whether they should do what they think is “right” or do what their constituents want.  We see this question rearing its head during the debates around Health Care Reform and the Cap and Trade bill.  It seems to me that a good leader will do what is right (and that might mean placing the wishes of their constituents over their own preference), and are ready to defend their record before their constituents.

I have several points I want to make in opposition to term limits.

First of all, term limits take away the rights of voters to select whom they want to have represent them.  The issue ought not to be about the rights of the politician, but the rights of voters to have the best representative they can find.  It may be fine that folks in Florida want to impose term limits on their representatives, but why should Utah be forced to do the same thing?

Secondly, a solution like term limits truly needs a more abstract view rather than being discussed as a solution for an immediate problem.  The discussion should not be about how to solve an immediate problem but rather an overall class of problem that has both a consistency and clear connection to extended terms of service.

Thirdly, we should consider it our duty as voters to select those who “…will have been distinguished by the preference of their fellow-citizens, we are to presume that in general they will be somewhat distinguished also by those qualities which entitle them to it, and which promise a sincere and scrupulous regard to the nature of their engagements.” [The Federalist Papers – Number 57, Publius (James Madison), 1788].  We should always be attentive to the character of those for whom we vote, whether new candidates or incumbents.

Lastly, the right of the people to limit the term of any politician already exists. It’s called a ballot.  If we deem it appropriate to limit a candidate to the term they have already served, simply vote for another candidate.  All of the reasons listed above to support term limits should be fully resolvable with this reply.

I’m sure some of you have other reasons than the ones I listed.  I am truly interested in hearing your thoughts about this, whether you agree or disagree.

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