An Argument Against Term Limits

In my last post, I talked a lot about the Charter Amendments that are included on this year’s ballot.

In that post, I came out against Term Limits. The position I stated in that post was really just a “quick hit” on my overall position as I noted in this comment. In this post I intend to clarify my position further, and dispel some persistent talking points that are the foundational arguments of Term Limit supporters.

First and foremost, my opposition to Term Limits centers around legislative positions such as City Council, County Commission, or State Legislature. Legislators in these positions are the most direct link between constituents and the government bodies on which they serve. While this link may not be utilized to it’s fullest potential by legislators, placing arbitrary limits on service runs counter to the fluid functioning of legislative bodies. Term limits cripple legislative bodies, undermining the institutional memory that enables these government bodies function properly.

Good legislators don’t grow on trees, they are built through experience. Much of this can comes from their campaigns, but no campaign can truly prepare an aspiring legislator for actually operating in a legislative environment, or the way the body actually works. This is further complicated by the “part time” nature of nearly all the legislative bodies in Tennessee.

Executive Term Limits

By contrast, I have fewer problems with Executive term limits for offices like Governor, or Mayor. Executive positions are full time affairs in many instances. Further, executive positions wield far greater power than legislative positions. Placing a time horizon on service in an executive position makes it less likely that the official can get “dug in” to the office. While it is true that Executives have as much or more of a learning curve upon taking office, the full time nature of the office gives them the opportunity to become effective and build a greater understanding of all the circumstances more quickly than legislators.

Skill Positions

In the comment I posted on my last piece, I noted my opposition to Term Limits for positions like Trustee, Assessor, Sheriff and other positions. I call these “skill” positions because they are focused on a single function of government that requires certain skills to accomplish them effectively. I should add to these positions elected judgeships.

With the exception of Sheriff and Judge, most people have little or no understanding of what people in these positions do, or the qualifications necessary to be effective in their positions. Placing arbitrary limits on these positions is misguided for many of the same reasons that term limiting legislators is misguided. We need continuity in these positions, and in order to maintain continuity, putting these officials out of office simply because they have reached a certain level of tenure is counterintuitive to maintaining the consistency of service necessary in their positions.

Dissecting the Arguments

There are several arguments that are consistently floated in support of Term Limits. Here are some of the most common.

Getting it Done in 8
This argument goes something like the last line of an email I received several days ago…

“If after eight years, a politician can’t get the job done for his constituents, common sense would say, it’s time for him to move on, and let someone else give it a try.”

From an emotional perspective, I understand why this argument resonates with people, but from an intellectual standpoint, it’s just counterintuitive.

If after 8 years a politician hasn’t done the job for his or her constituents, then the constituents should vote him or her out of office. Period. If they don’t, shame on the voters for not voting their interests.

What this argument doesn’t address is if the politician is actually doing the job their constituents want them to do. What happens to these politicians? Under this logic they get put out just like the bad ones. How does this serve the interests of the constituents in question? It doesn’t.

The Corrupting Influence of Government

This argument relies on the notion that government is inherently corrupting. Unfortunately, just as not all people who consume alcohol become alcoholics, not all elected officials become corrupt.

Government, in and of itself is no more corrupt than any other large institution. Corruption is more the result of failed individuals than the fabled shadowy hand of a corrupt system. That is not to say that there aren’t corrupt elements of government, but that officials who fall prey to corruption are the ones who enable corruption rather than the other way around.

This argument plays on the actions of certain “bad apples” and the fear of constituents who are either disengaged from the process, or have ideological objections to the influence of government in people’s lives.

The Power of the Incumbency

It is true that unseating an incumbent is far more difficult than vying for an open seat. Incumbents have networks of donors and name recognition that upstart candidates do not. Further, incumbents in federal elections enjoy a 95% re-election rate. It’s hard to believe that this figure is much less for local elections.

Incumbency, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. You probably don’t go to a different place every time you get your hair cut, you go to the guy or girl that does it the way you like it. What if you were forced to go to a different barbershop or stylist every other time? You might be happy with the results, you might not, ultimately, you’ll never know until it’s too late.

If your incumbent politician is doing the job you want them to do, why should you be forced to vote for someone else? You shouldn’t.

While challengers may have a higher bar to cross in getting their name and message out, there’s nothing inherently unfair about that. They may be largely unknown quantities to the general public who should have to prove themselves to assure the public that they will work in their interests in the absence of an established record.

The reality is, if an incumbent politician isn’t doing the job their constituents want, the voters will term limit them with their vote. That’s America, that’s the way it should be.

Conclusion

While I’m sure I’ve left some arguments out on both sides of the Term Limit issue, I think I’ve, at the very least, clarified my position. As always, I encourage discussion. Post a comment or drop me an email.

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