Term Limits “versus” Informed Citizens?

In his commentary “Term Limits Are a Poor Substitute for an Informed Electorate,” blogger Andy Sochor repeats a familiar claim: That formally term-limiting political tenure implies the irrelevance of intelligent involvement in political life, and even discourages our participation in it.

This assessment would have surprised the Romans in their republican days or the Athenians in Greece’s golden age. Both polities imposed stringent term limits on political offices; and in both, citizens (non-slave adult males) actively participated in political life. It was willingness to flout traditional term limits that helped precipitate the collapse of the Roman republic and the rise of the emperors. Augustus, who took over after Julius Caesar was assassinated, ruled uninterruptedly for decades (even if we subtract the years he shared imperial power with Mark Antony).

Term limits in fact encourage citizens to participate in political life by fostering meaningful options at the polling booth. Incumbents enjoy enormous advantages over challengers, especially in district-level elections. These advantages often yield lopsided contests and even contests in which the incumbent faces no challenger at all.

What use is it to a voter to study up on which candidate is best when there’s only one candidate?

No single institutional feature of governance can conquer corruption in high places or ignorance in low places. But from what I’ve seen, voters become discouraged from learning about options when their options are reduced under incumbency-forever politics.

Under term limits, they have greater incentive to inform themselves.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

12 Comments so far ↓

  1. Aug
    23
    9:42
    AM
    Cheryl Barker

    I could not agree with you more, Paul. There is no better example than New York City, which HAS a 2-term limit for mayor. Said limit was violated by Michael Bloomberg, who after 2 mediocre terms in office, bought himself a third term. Bloomberg won only because of no credible competition, an indifferent public and a low voter turnout. This may have been a local election, but it does not bode well for the future of this country if such a trend continues.

  2. Aug
    23
    2:14
    PM
    Herbert Smolinsky

    I agree with you 100%, but every time we try to have term limits, the public is too lazy to do something about it!!!!

  3. Aug
    23
    2:32
    PM
    Fritz

    Arrgh!!! Again with the term limits panacea! I agree with limits for the executive but I suggest you look at where term limits are in effect for legislators. I live in San Diego. The city council is term limited & union owned: insolvent. County supervisors (were) not term limited: solvent. California legislature term limited and out of control: insolvent. Am I the only one to see a pattern?

    Anyone scared of a lame duck congress after Nov? What if we now have 1/3 of the legislature completely out of the voters’ reach and entirely unaccountable? These guys will have only one thing in mind: What special interest is going to take care of them in Jan? There’s an example of term limits laid out in gory detail. Is THAT what you want institutionalize in Washington FOREVER?

    Basic question that must be answered: How does removing someone from the strings of power and money make them MORE responsive to the voters if he NEVER EVER HAS TO FACE THEM AGAIN?

  4. Aug
    23
    5:38
    PM
    Dennis Weber

    Paul you are correct that Term Limits are the only way to be sure that incumbents/government/special interests/ etc. will not be able to control what the voter is allowed to “know”. The present situation where the media are in bed with the politicians is proof that we cannot rely on getting the unbiased information we need to be able to make rational decisions in the voting booth. We CAN rely on the voters to make good decisions as long as they are given the information they need. Also, we need to go back to electing Senators by state legislatures as written in the original Constitution. Otherwise, it is too easy to elect 100 senators who will do what the special interests want. Senators are too stupid to make the correct decision each time.

  5. Aug
    23
    8:22
    PM
    Daylan Darby

    I believe that Ballot limits* would be better than term limits because they wouldn’t prevent the public from electing those they really really want.

    *Ballot limits: A candidate can only appear once (or twice) consecutively on the ballot for a particular office, but is always eligible for write-in.

  6. Aug
    24
    6:37
    PM
    David

    Fritz repeats the straw man that term limits are regarded as a “panacea” by advocates of term limits. The whole point of Paul’s article, which perhaps Fritiz should re-read, was to argue that they are invaluable and necessary despite NOT being a panacea. What they can do, for example, is put a stop “out of control” legislators by preventing them from gaining a permanent perch and enabling possibly saner candidates to have a greater electoral opportunity. Would Fritz, who ignores the pre-term-limits conduct of California legislators, not agree that the spending habits of 20-, 30-, 40-year incumbents in the U.S. Congress is “out of control”? Term limits are not a substitute for ideas or character. No feature of institutions can be. If Fritz prefers permanent oligarchy to democracy, if he prefers corruption and excess that are permanently entrenched to corruption and excess that are regularly shown the door, he should plainly say so.

  7. Aug
    25
    8:34
    AM
    Andy Sochor

    Thanks for mentioning my article, but I feel I ought to clarify a couple things about what I wrote in it. First, I don’t necessarily have a problem with term limits. I think they would go a long way in fixing the corruption in government and bridging the gap between the people and their representatives.

    Second, whether or not you have term limits, you first need a people who are informed and engaged in the political process. A corrupt politician cannot stay in office unless the people re-elect him. For the most part, an informed electorate will, through primaries and general elections, select good candidates. If they make a mistake, it can be corrected in the next election. That does leave a big question though: Can you get this level of engagement where the public is the enforcer of term limits on corrupt politicians? Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

    The reality is that we need term limits. Ideally, these limits would be enforced at the ballot box, with or without new legislation. But if we can’t do that without legislation, then let’s go ahead and get them put into law.

    Daylan’s idea about ballot limits is intriguing. It would prevent people from thoughtlessly choosing the incumbent whose name they recognize without preventing them from selecting any individual they decide they want to vote for.

  8. Aug
    25
    9:21
    AM
    Fritz

    David, the fundamental question has not been answered: why would a legislator be more responsive to the voter if he no longer has to face him? Take a look at the CA budget (normalized for inflation & population) over the last 25yrs or so. It rose steadily but slowly until term limits were enacted. For a few years the budget actually declined (in relative terms) but then went on it’s unsustainable ballistic trend. I maintain it was because they realized they were going to be out of office in 2yrs (e.g., Assembly) and had to feather their bed for when they got out. No accountability; why should they care? I consider myself a “political junkie” and I have a hard time remembering the Speaker’s name. They’re anonymous and, because of Gerrymandering, the seats “belong” to one party or the other. As much as I disliked Willie Brown I doubt he would have allowed the budgetary disaster we have now.

    I use the term “panacea” because too many jump to term limits as The Solution too quickly and don’t consider the consequences. The city of San Diego (I’m using SD because I live here and I SEE it) and CA are in meltdown precisely because the legislators are now OWNED by special interest groups. They aren’t the “citizen legislator” that were hoped for.

  9. Aug
    29
    3:27
    PM
    Paul Jacob

    Fritz,

    The reason the legislator will be more responsive to voters with term limits is multifaceted. But I think the most important impact of term limits, which does make a legislator more responsive to the voter even when he is not facing the voters again, is that the legislator will soon find himself in the same situation as his constituent and thus will naturally be likely to have the same interests. Term limits keep legislators closer to private station and thus closer to the people.

  10. Aug
    29
    6:23
    PM
    Richard Rider

    California’s state legislative problem is far simpler than term limits or gerrrymandering. It’s that this blue state elects Democrats to a big majority of the seats. It doesn’t matter whether or not the Dem legislators are newbies or veterans — the all vote the same way.

    Look at NY state. No term limits, a smaller Dem majority, and no limits on spending. Last year in this prolonged recession, the NY Dems raised spending 8% and increased TWENTY taxes. Madness reigns.

  11. Aug
    30
    1:41
    AM
    Dennis Weber

    The Senate is 60% lawyers and has been for many years. It is no accident that the Trial Lawyers Association has warned Obama not to allow any changes in Tort Law. The need for changes in Tort Law has been discussed for many years, but nothing ever gets done and there will be no action as long as the Senate is 60% lawyers. A supermajority is 60% and can block any legislation that the lawyers want blocked. The Senate is 60% lawyers, the House is 38% lawyers and rising. The Executive branch is 100% lawyers now. Obama and the V.P. are both lawyers. Of course the Supreme Court is 100% lawyers. Therefore the lawyer culture, ( sue them till they give in) controls all three branches of government now. The bureaucracy is loaded with lawyers. Data shows that there is a lawyer for every 14 residents of Washington DC. They know where the power and money is located. We do not have government by legislation, we have government by litigation. The state of California and many other states cannot have a law passed by the electorate without having it turned upside down by the courts. Law schools produce more lawyers each year than there are those that are needed. Failed lawyers in private practice all go the Washington DC to live. The lawyer culture acts as if they deserve to have power and money, just because they are law school graduates. We need to stop electing lawyers to public office.

  12. Aug
    30
    9:26
    AM
    Fritz

    Paul,

    I respectfully disagree: term limited legislators do NOT find themselves in the same situation as theire “constituents.” That is exactly the problem. They’ve feathered their beds for a soft landing (please forgive the corny metaphor) upon their exit. I see it locally in San Diego where the ex-councilmembers land in some cushy position in a “foundation.” Happens all too frequently.

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