Paul Jacob
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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.

Even in states and cities where voters have passed term limits by ballot initiative, our supposed servants in legislatures and city councils have self-servingly sued to overturn the democratic decision of the people they claim to work for. Where initiatives could be repealed — Idaho, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Utah come to mind — politicians have repealed them. In places where politicians lack the carte blanche authority to veto the work of the voters, our solons have often forced voters to defeat repeated repeals as well as measures to significantly weaken the limits.

The people of Tampa, Florida, and Nashville, Tennessee, have each voted on term limits four separate times, because after the initial vote to enact the concept, the city councils peppered citizens with measures to repeal or severely weaken the limits. Likewise, legislators in Arkansas, California, Maine and Montana have forced re-votes designed to repeal or weaken their limits.

In Idaho, legislators placed an advisory measure on the ballot asking voters to endorse a repeal of term limits. When the voters advised that they wanted to keep the term limits, the spuds in the state legislature repealed them anyway.

In January of 1993, Wyoming legislators started to gut the term limits passed by 77 percent of the vote just two months earlier. Eventually, fiery public opposition stopped the legislative assault, but years later legislators weakened the limits without consulting the people. When the weakened limits were finally set to bite for the first time, legislators sued in state court arguing that limits could only be enacted by a constitutional amendment that only legislators could propose, not citizens through the initiative. The court struck down the limits and Wyoming legislators — precisely like their counterparts in Illinois and New York City — refuse to act on behalf of the people they pretend to represent.

Nebraska citizens had to pass term limits three times: outrageous court decisions had struck down the first two. The voters backed their third term limit vote by defeating, in a retention election, the state supreme court justice who had authored the negative decisions — the first such defeat for a justice in the state’s history. That final term limits measure was not-so-mysteriously upheld by the court.

Still, not only did the political and judicial resistance delay the limits first enacted in 1992 from taking effect until 2008, the Nebraska Legislature has now stuck Amendment 3 on this year’s ballot. If passed — and it won’t be — it would weaken the limits by allowing legislators to serve 50 percent longer.

Yesterday, I participated in a forum on state legislative term limits hosted by the Center for Ethics in Public Life at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. A number of academics and legislators spoke, along with just two supporters of term limits: Greg Upchurch, a well-respected patent attorney and businessman who led the 1992 Missourians for Limited Terms campaign, was one; I was the other.

The usual issues were debated — experience in office versus experience in the private economy, whether lobbyists and special interests (who hate term limits and have spent considerable sums of money to block or overturn them) are somehow empowered by the limits, and how much credit term limits deserves for not having any speaker convicted and imprisoned for corruption as seemed to be the norm before term limits.

But not discussed enough? Ethics. It is unethical for those holding a position of public trust to refuse to represent the people on the issue of term limits and to instead use their position to serve their own selfish interests. On that, we should all agree.

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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.