Thursday, June 07, 2012


About Term Limits for Legislators and other Elected Officials

If you read my previous blog, dated May 17 of this year, you know that I don't like term limits, especially life time term limits for elected officials.  I have read the arguments of the people who propose and advocate such term limits.  Their stated goal is to discourage the formation of a political class, a class of persons who spend their entire active life in political activity, particularly enacting new laws.  A popular saying is that after a person has served some time in a legislature, let him or her then return home and live under these new laws.  An unstated belief is that political life corrupts.  Elected office is a source of power.  After a while the legislator or other elected official forgets why he or she wanted the office and enjoys the power that comes with it.  The way to prevent this, according to the term limits people, is to place an absolute limit on the time an individual can serve in any elected office.

Another argument in favor of life time term limits is that an important benefit of the power of an elected office is the personal gain that an individual may achieve by virtue of occupying the office for many years.  We all disapprove of elected officials who become rich in office.  The office should not be a source of wealth but a trust granted by the voters to provide honest and fair governance.  Therefore, the term of the office should not be long enough for the occupant to acquire great wealth.  At the very least, if the office does provide wealth for the occupant, it should be passed around so that others can share in the bounty.

I reject these arguments.  I reject the notion that there is inherently something shameful and dishonest about being a politician.  A politician is one who knows how to get things done by making compromises with other politicians.  We have seen in recent years the folly of trying to enact a law or begin a program with the support of only one party.  Bipartisan support is essential in crafting any new important law or starting any new and beneficial program.  Getting support from members of the other party is what expert politicians are good at.  We need them.  If they are termed out of office for life, we lose their valuable services.

During my time in California one of the most useful members of the Legislature was Frank Lanterman.  He is not remembered for any important legislation that he authored.  He is remembered for being an expert at making compromises that members of both political parties could agree to, even if reluctantly.  It happened that he was a Republican, but that made no difference.  He was not a "small government" ideologue.  He was a believer in getting things done.  Who in the California legislature today can fill the shoes of this man?

Although I feel strongly that imposing life time term limits on elected officials, particularly legislators, is a mistake, I am willing to accept a limit on consecutive terms.  Let us suppose that a legislator has a limit of eight years at a time.  After eight years in, say, the Assembly, he can not be immediately reelected to that body.  He can run for a position in the Senate.  After eight years in the Senate, he can then return to the Assembly.  Alternatively, he can take a two-year vacation and then be elected again to the Assembly for another eight years.  In this way we can keep the expertise of the good compromisers (successors of Frank Lanterman) and at the same time have an opportunity to break up the careers of those who simply want to serve as a legislator for the power that accrues after a long and continuous time in office.

What should I call term limits that do not last a life time but merely limit the number of consecutive terms a person can serve at a time?  Are these interim limit, consecutive limits, or what?  Please write.

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