Paul Jacob

October 7, 2012

Americans are obviously divided on the current presidential race. We disagree, too, on a whole range of social and economic issues. But we remain firmly united when it comes to one straightforward political reform: term limits.

Since 1990, when voters in California, Colorado and Oklahoma passed the first statewide ballot initiatives to limit the number of terms their state legislators could serve, the issue has enjoyed sustained support from whopping majorities in every region of the country, in rural states like Wyoming and in the urban behemoths of New York and Los Angeles.

Before the controversial 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1995, which struck down state-imposed term limits on members of Congress, 23 states, comprising more than 40 percent of the nation’s population, had passed such laws — many by lopsided, two-to-one vote margins, some even greater than three-to-one. Today, though those federal congressional limits were overturned, 15 states limit the terms of their legislatures and 36 states impose a limit on their governor.

There is no gender gap on term limits, no meaningful split by race or income or even political party. But there exists a startling gap of a different sort: an initiative gap.

In the states and cities that enacted term limits, voters had the power to petition the issue onto the ballot. With only a few exceptions, states permitting voters to decide at the ballot box enacted term limits, while in states without the citizen initiative process politicians simply refused to abide by the obvious will of the electorate.

A recent poll commissioned by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University found a whopping 79 percent of that state’s citizens want term limits for their legislators, against a mere 17 percent in opposition. If Illinois’s pinhole initiative process permitted a term limits measure, the voters would have decided the issue at the ballot box decades ago. And yet what are the chances that Illinois’s legislature will serve the people by placing a term-limit measure on the ballot for citizens to decide?

It’s between slim and none . . . minus the slim.

What does this say about our representative government, about government of, by and for the people? It is mere pretense.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.