Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Are Term Limits a Good Idea?

With New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the news for overturning a term limits law that would have prevented him from running for a third term, the question about the value of term limits has again been raised.

There’s nothing new about all of this. When a popular political officeholder cannot run again, there is always talk about why term limits are wrong. On the other hand, there was a loud sigh of relief by many that President Bush was unable to run again although with his present lack of popularity, that now appears to be a moot point.

I have to admit I have a lot of strongly mixed emotions on this issue.

At first blush from a standpoint of principle, I find this to be a no-brainer. A free election means being able to vote for whom we want to without interference from condescending lawmakers who do not trust our judgment in picking our leaders. I’m not even sure about the age guidelines in the Constitution for electing House and Senate members along with the President. After all, shouldn’t we decide on a candidate based on his or her merits instead of an arbitrary age requirement?

And despite these age requirements the Founding Fathers put into the Constitution, there was no mention of term limits. But it is felt that many of the early presidents adhered to
an informal two term limit until Franklin D. Roosevelt won a third and fourth term likely because we were in the middle of World War II. An argument can certainly be made that being forced to change presidents in the middle of a world crisis the size of WW II would not be a good thing.

After Roosevelt's death, the newly Republican Congress desired to establish a firm constitutional provision barring presidents from being elected more than twice. The rationale was a concern that without limits, the presidential position could become too similar to that of a benevolent dictator lasting not just four years but a lifetime, and that the position could become too powerful and upset the separation of powers. Hence, the Twenty-second Amendment was adopted.

As nice as this all sounds, it begs the question of whether this measure would have been passed by a Republican Congress if FDR had instead been a Republican president.

It didn’t take long for criticism to develop starting with the first president affected by the Twenty-second Amendment, Dwight D. Eisenhower to the present occupant of the White House, George W. Bush when after winning his second term, telling the media "I'm going to come out strong after my swearing-in. We have to move quickly, because after that I'll be quacking like a duck."

It can be argued that making someone a lame duck after an election victory doesn’t make for a productive final term in office. Looking at a number of number of presidential administrations, their second terms are often less productive than the first ones where they were driven by the incentive to become reelected.

Perhaps the most often used argument in favor of term limits is that our elected officials should not be allowed to make a whole career out of elected office. Those who have had their chance to serve should eventually step aside for new blood and new ideas to get into the system. But if someone is doing a good job and deserves to be elected, why shouldn’t we be able to keep that person? And besides, experience to be able to learn the ropes to become a more effective leader is certainly beneficial.

But unfortunately, experience allows too many politicians to learn the ropes on how to hold onto power sometimes to the exclusion of serving the needs of the electorate. This power of the incumbency is not a good thing because too many people are becoming reelected simply based more on their advantage of being an incumbent than on the relative merits of the candidates.

For those who are interested, I would like to offer a link to an interesting article The Power of Congressional Incumbency - How Unfair Electoral Advantage Damages Democracy. The article which focuses on Congressional elections (but some of it can be applied to other elections) discusses how few elections are really competitive because of the advantages of election financing and media coverage for the incumbent along with more subtle methods like re-districting to ensure a reliable bloc of voters for the incumbent.

I would like to offer part of the concluding paragraph from the article:

These are the realities of the current electoral situation in American Congressional elections: because of financial issues, media saturation, and rampant gerrymandering of districts, incumbents almost always win re-election, with the elections themselves thus rendered almost meaningless. Solving the problem will not be easy, since any attempt at reform can potentially run into Constitutional protections of free speech.

And for those who still question the power of incumbency, there are examples of dead incumbents winning reelection along with the latest example of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens who may still win reelection despite having just been convicted of seven felony counts of violating federal ethics laws.

So perhaps the reader can better understand my conflicting feelings on the issue of term limits. Earlier I argued that I disliked term limits on principle because we should be able to decide on candidates based on their merits without the condescending interference of term limits. But then there is a power of incumbency that itself often undercuts any real competition based on the merits of the candidates. And quite possibly, the only way to effectively deal with this excessive power of the incumbent is to impose term limits. Whew!

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