The Magic Wand Series: Term Limits

The members of The Rational Middle may disagree, but it is this writer’s opinion that the principle threat to our democracy is intellectual laziness. Terrorism, pollution, crime, and economic imbalance pale in comparison to the dangers of self-inflicted stupidity; we Americans too often choose to be ignorant out of a sense of expedience. Today’s campaigns are filled with ads that take simple and completely unrealistic positions given the facts. All Democrats who run under the presumption that Republican policies caused the recession and Republicans are therefore evil, fail the test of credibility. Every Republican politician now claiming to be able to grow jobs, cut taxes, and stop deficits are equally disreputable.

But here we are, in 2010, believing what we see crammed into expensive television spots filled with venom and bullshit. It isn’t the fault of the politicians; for all of our snide jokes and references to crooks and liars, we like them this way. We the people have proven that the politician best able to make his brand of b.s. smell the best will get our votes; or at least enough of them for a simple majority. This is one of thousands of spots on the net where the informed voter can go for reasoned argument and information. Too often, however, the front-line topics covered by the campaign ads are the very same discussed on these pages, and a little spice is in order. The Rational Middle will profile one commonly cherished Magic Wand every week for the next four. These topics aren’t the hot and sexy stories at the front of the political press, but they are ever-present notions bubbling under the surface of political thought. It is the hope that these will inspire conversation, as none (I believe) are amenable to simple black and white explanations.

The first Magic Wand that many angry voters want to wave is often term limits. The process of legally limiting the number of terms that an individual can serve in a certain seat is not a recent notion; the founders of our democracy debated the point at length. Federal term limits were included in our first government, The Articles of Confederation, and then excluded from the Constitution. It took an Amendment to our Constitution, the 22nd in 1951, to limit presidents to two terms, although many states have had them on the books since the beginning of the republic. The notion is simple; keep “them” from becoming professional politicians and the money, corruption, and insular attitudes will go away. It sounds great…

I am not sold on the notion, especially as it is cast by some as a “solution” to some set of political or structural problems in our nation. Those framers who argued for them 230 years ago did so with a specific point and purpose, and within the framework of logic. In today’s political world, whether in the media, citizenry, or politicians, the argument for term limits has devolved into a cure-all for corruption and campaign spending. Cure-alls are wonderful things, but they too often miss their targets. Term limits have been in use at every level of American politics save one, and the effects of this Magic Wand on corruption and spending are mixed at best. Our democracy has had term limits for the Presidency for 6 decades…fully 25% of our presidents have been term-limited. I challenge the readers of this post to find 50 people out of 100 who believe any of those executives were (or are) free from corruption. The staggering costs of the last three elections firmly and irrefutably rebut any notion that term limits, on the big stages at least, have an effect on spending.

On the state level, there exists some evidence of positive spending effects. John Lott and Kermit Daniel found evidence of reduced spending and expanded competition in races for the California State Legislature after term limits were adopted in 1990. Their study, a competent and credible academic piece published in a reputable journal offers real hope to supporters of term limits. But the subject, California, presents its own compelling rebuttal. It is one of the handful of states were all state offices are limited, and is also widely considered one of the worst-run states in the union. Beset by financial difficulties, an uncertain economy deeply dependent on the U.S. military budget, and a scarred educational system, the Golden State is not, perhaps, the best choice for term limits exhibit A.

Outside of the economic issues, it is the notion of citizen legislators that holds the greatest appeal for supporters of term limits. In fact, it holds some appeal for me as well. The framers who argued for limits did so on this basis, holding up the idea of rotation as a bulwark against oligarchy. Yet again, I find that I must hedge my support for this point of view. Citizen legislators as an antidote to oligarchy sounds nice, but presupposes that it is elected officials that perpetuate the culture of government. Lobbyists and career civil service employees now hold the most sway over the operations of any government, Republican or Democrat. But it is my argument that another entity entirely is in control of our democracy at the federal, state, and local level: the public/media interface.

What we the people expect of and accept from our media outlets defines what they produce. At the genesis of the 21st Century, we expect and accept simplicity and unchallenged arguments. Spin is allowed to stand, and media outlets are given incentive to produce stories rather than report information. I will write more on the public/media interface in a later post, but it will stand unchanged in the face of term limits. Standing alongside the interface is the very same spending model that term limits are supposed to kill. The interface cannot be touched by legislative action, but campaign spending can and should be implemented.

Supporters of term limits firmly, and often rudely, reject the notion of campaign finance reform. A typical argument boils into the even more typical “we and they” paradigm of democracy: a paradigm that has chipped away at our republic for some 30 years. “They”, the argument goes, “will never pass legislation that hurts them.” History is replete with legislation passed through force of public will, both positive and negative. “They” will pass what we the people tell them to, when it is apparent that enough of us want to reelect “them” to another term. In the absence of term limits, voters have both the carrot and the stick with which to tempt their representatives.

Ultimately, however, getting control of the electoral process and its spending boils down to the re-engagement of the public in politics. If we are to demand honest and accountable officials, then we must reward honesty and accountability in our campaigns. In our current reality, we the people reward those who tell just enough of the truth that we want to hear. The process won’t be easy. As is the ongoing theme of The Rational Middle, the problems deserve something more than a simple answer.

The Rational Middle is listening…