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Pondering Term Limits

Feb 11, 2009
As we know, the only elective office in the federal government that has term limits is the presidency, although this, in effect, limits the terms of senior executive branch members such as cabinet secretaries (unless you are lucky enough to be Robert Gates). Thirty-seven of the 50 states restrict the terms of their governors (usually to two four-year terms).1 Fifteen states have term limits for their legislators, although term limits in six other states have been repealed by the legislature or by court action.2

Obviously, there is a great deal of sentiment both pro and con regarding term limits. Which position is best?

Those opposing term limits can raise these arguments: Why squander hard-won experience and how does one build up seniority in its representatives if they are forced out every couple of terms?

We will address the second argument first. Conferring enhanced powers on representatives on the basis of longevity in office results in a tiered sort of government where the old guard exercise more than their fair share of power in relation to the newbies, violating the democratic principle of one voter, one vote.

Experience is a two-edged sword and as we have seen over and over again it is used at least as often for ill as for good. Arguably, an effective elected representive has paths of upward mobility to pursue, and they should, bringing to the electoral process the same “up or out” principle as is practiced in schools, law firms, and other professional environments.

The potential evil of long tenure in office is apparent in the recent Daschle debacle as well as in the stories told in Revolving Doors. The holding of the same political office for four, five, six or more terms breeds corruption; the incumbent’s advantage is anathema to the entertainment of fresh ideas; and we, the electorate, become lulled into a kind of lethargy and inattention, with every scurrilous revelation coming as a great shock before we settle back into oblivious apathy.

Term limits, for the occasional ill they may bring, are a necessary preventative to the many ills and disadvantages brought about by a kind of "permanent government" enabled by their absence.
1 Governors, 2008 (.pdf, 2 pp., 72Kb), from The Council of State Governments, accessed February 8, 2008
2 The Term Limited States, from the National Conference of State Legislatures, accessed February 9, 2009
tags: Politics

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