Sham Elections, Shameless Politicians, and Term Limits

Posted: May 09, 2004 12:00 AM
Were terrorists to wipe out most of the Congress, how would republican government survive? Some fear the current plan to elect new congressmen won't work. The ensuing elections might be . . . uncompetitive!

This week in The Washington Post, Norman Ornstein, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, complained, "These elections, in other words, would be a sham: no chance for a range of candidates to emerge and test their appeal to the electorate; no chance for alternative voices; no real opportunity for debate and give-and-take."

No doubt. Still, I can't help but notice that what he says also applies to our regular elections.

Ornstein, a strident critic of term limits, goes on to say, "And of course, the 350 House members elected under these conditions would, if past experience is any guide, become incumbents with the ability to serve for as long as they wanted -- 98 percent would win reelection regularly thereafter."

Hmmm. I don't recall him admitting that when Congress was debating term limits.


Congress little concerns itself with term limits these days, and yet limits are all around them. There are term limits for committee chairman, by rule. Congressmen themselves have advanced proposals to limit the terms of executive branch nominees, such as Federal Election Commissioners. The Joint Chiefs of Staff of the military are term-limited.

Strange as it may seem, our representatives have long been big fans of term limits. Really. Congress voted for the constitutional amendment limiting the president's stay in office, ratified in 1951. In 1994, just before failing to pass even the most watered-down version of term limits for themselves, over 80 percent of representatives gladly voted to term-limit the committee chairmen just above them on the seniority ladder.

People looking for ways to limit government continue to look to term limits. Conservative activists, led by Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, have recently been urging term limits on appropriations committee members as the best way to stem the profligate spending in Washington. But, as Mr. Ornstein so ably points out, with the hammer-lock incumbents have on office, the congressional leadership regularly lurches the other direction.

Just recently, senators on the Intelligence Committee voted to remove their term limits. The result of the vote was publicized, but how each senator voted remains secret. Their reasons for removing the limits remain sketchy, too.

Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, ranking Democrat on the committee, said, "The world has gotten very chaotic, and we're not governmentally responding to it adequately. There's a lot we can do to make ourselves more effective."

"It is clear to me that change is needed," said Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, the committee chairman.

So, apparently, because current committee members are so incredibly ineffective, the change that "is needed" is for there to be no more change!

The shamelessness doesn't end there. Nathan Deal, a Democrat-turned-Republican in Georgia, pledged to serve no more than twelve years (a long time, in my book). Now, he's breaking his pledge.

This betrayal is bad, yes, but more despicable is his excuse. Deal says he cannot walk away from the Congress after voting to let the president send troops into the field. Beyond the audacity of hiding behind the troops, what is Deal suggesting? That no one can replace him with the same commitment to those troops? No one else in Georgia's 10th district cares as he does?

Old Man River

Away from the madness of the nation's capital, in the states and at the local level -- where, through the initiative, voters can overrule their rulers -- term limits just keep rolling along. Term limits are kicking in across the country. Since 1996, in the 16 state legislatures under limits, 965 politicians have been shown the door. This year, term limits will end the ride for 286 more. And more in 2006 and more in 2008 and . . .

Consider the eons of legislative experience from which we've been saved!

But better yet, term limits have given voters more choices in elections filled with candidates who are more likely to have real-world experience. Term-limit states have set records for the most candidates running for office. The newly term-limited legislatures have given leadership opportunities to women and minorities for the first time. There is no magic. Term limits means open seats and more competitive elections.

In survey after survey, voter support for term limits is as high as -- or even higher than -- when the laws were first passed by voters. (And you'll recall that these initiatives usually passed with very high winning percentages.) If government is supposed to be of, by, and for the people, it might be noted more often that the people love term limits.

Moreover, we know term limits work: there's no better sign than the constant whining and crying by career politicians, lobbyists, and special interests. These Robert Byrd wannabes and their henchmen won't go gentle into that good night.

The Empire Strikes Back

Unfortunately, it's not just whining. Career politicians have taken action. State legislative term limits are under attack in state after state as the bell begins to toll for each of them.

In states without a process to amend the state constitution through citizen initiative, politicians (Idaho, Utah) and judges (Massachusetts, Washington, Wyoming) have generally killed the limits. Last week, Wyoming's Supreme Court overturned statutory term limits passed by 77 percent of the state's voters. Voters may not amend their basic law; only politicians can.

But in states with term limits as a constitutional provision, voters have the upper hand. Only the Oregon Supreme Court has swerved so far outside the lines as to imagine a legal rationale to overturn the limits. Oregon's court established a brand-new mandate: initiatives must be narrowed to a single subject. Then, the court applied their new rule only to constitutional amendments passed as far back as term limits. No further back than that was necessary.

Oregon voters are now petitioning to put a new term limits initiative on the November ballot, which would restore what lawsuit-happy legislators and arbitrary judges stole from voters. The court will have to launch a coup d'?t to overturn this amendment.

Riled voters have already stopped efforts by state legislators in Florida, Louisiana, Maine, Nebraska, South Dakota, and elsewhere to pepper the ballot with extensions or repeals of term limits. (You can get regularly riled, too, by subscribing to my free Common Sense e-letter.)

Whenever two politicians get together, it seems, talk turns to how to escape term limits. Back in 2002, politicians and special interests got together in California to launch an initiative to weaken the term limits law. Though term-limit supporters were outspen $11 million to $1 million, voters clobbered the anti-term limits measure 58 to 42 percent.

Still, voters are facing ballot measures to weaken term limits in Arkansas and Montana.

In 1992, term limits on the Arkansas state legislature passed with a 60 percent vote. According to polls, Arkansans like term limits even better today -- but legislators don't. They're trying to lengthen terms from six years in the House and eight years in the Senate to twelve years in either body.

Under state law, the change can only be made with the approval of the voters in a statewide referendum. Knowing that they would handily lose an honest re-vote, the politicians have concocted a scam to fool the voters. Here is what the politicians have put on the ballot title for voters to see: "Proposal to Establish Term Limits on the General Assembly." I'm not kidding. This devious plan is the perfect example of why term limits are needed in the first place.

Montana legislators, who failed in their lawsuit to abolish term limits, have joined Arkansas politicians by attempting to extend and block term limits. At least this politician-passed ballot measure is more honestly worded. Voters will whip this attack, too, but a major campaign will be required to sort out the disinformation pumped out by the politicians and special interests.

Meanwhile, Arizona legislators are considering testing their state's electorate with a ballot measure to weaken term limits. SCR 1029, an amendment to double House terms and weaken Senate limits by 50 percent needs only House passage to appear on the ballot this November.

Love 'em or Hate 'em

Term limits is the largest grassroots political movement in recent decades, bringing together voters across the political spectrum, from liberal New York to conservative Idaho. Voters love term limits, while politicians hate term limits -- well, at least for themselves.

The question is: who's in charge? In parts of the country, we'll find out this November.