Who will government serve?

Posted: Sep 19, 2004 12:00 AM

A uniter, not a divider? Until genocidal aliens arrive from outer space, any program that unites will divide, too. Example? Term limits.

This reform certainly unites many of those running our government ? politicians, lobbyists, legislative staff, public employee unions and even political scientists, who share uniform terror at the thought of losing their lease on power, and its many perquisites.

The voters are united, too, but squarely in favor of the reform that is as old as Aristotle, as timeless as Washington and Jefferson and as new as the last election where voters had a chance to decide. So you see the division: between the ruling class and the citizens who, in a democratic republic, are supposed to rule.

Last week, I reviewed The Test Of Time: Coping With State Legislative Term Limits, a new book full of so-called studies by academics and experts, who "scientifically" surveyed legislators and lobbyists to see just how well they think term limits are working. (I won't spoil the ending for you.)

Meanwhile, it never occurred to these students of government to ask the people what we think of this reform. After all, term limits were necessarily enacted by voters over the strenuous objection of the political class.

However, in more scientific fashion, pollsters have in fact asked the people of the fifteen states with state legislative term limits what they think. Years ago, voters passed term limits in these states by whopping margins. But what do they think now that term limits have taken effect?

Well, limits have yet to require any legislator to step down from office in Louisiana, Nebraska or Nevada. Still, in Louisiana, legislators have already begun to push measures to repeal the law. According to voter surveys, the politicians are out of step. Not only do 74 percent of voters support the limits (which passed with 76 percent support), but fully 85 percent of Bayou State voters think their legislators' opposition to limits is simply "motivated by a desire to stay in power."

The limits Oklahomans passed back in 1990 are just this election finally creating turnover. And thank goodness. For the first time in memory, there is a real battle for control of the legislature, with 42 seats (28 percent of the body) open and up for competition.

In the eleven states where term limits have kicked in for legislators ? Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Ohio and South Dakota ? polls show that voters continue to support limits by solid margins, usually even higher than the big margins these measures originally garnered.

For instance, Florida voters approved the "eight is enough" term limits law with an incredible 77 percent of the vote in 1992. When grumbling careerists saw the limits about to remove them from office, they attempted to pass an amendment to block term limits. Were legislators picking up on waning support? Hardly. A poll demonstrates that 78 percent of Floridians now support the limits! And once voters were alerted to the scheme, the legislators scurried back into the dark corners of the capitol.

In California, where term limits won narrowly in 1990, 52 to 48 percent, a 2002 measure to weaken those limits failed by a greater percentage, 58 to 42. In both elections, politicians and special interests lost while outspending supporters by many millions of dollars. Polls consistently show that after the implementation of term limits began to remove incumbents, public support has soared higher, as much as 17 percentage points higher than when limits were first passed.

Rick Farmer, one of the editors of The Test of Time, told reporters after a recent academic conference on the issue, "Lobbyists, legislators, and all those who work in government are working in several states to get movements going to overthrow term limits. But they keep running into the voters, who are still convinced they are a good thing."

Yet, even with solid support from voters ? a slightly important group, being both the owners and customers of government ? 2004 is a critical year for the term limits movement. Clearly, what the public wants matters not at all to the political insiders, and as limits begin to take effect more completely, the political insiders are getting more and more desperate. And smarter.

Gone is any serious effort by legislators to repeal term limits, since everywhere save Maine the limits cannot be removed without a vote of the people. Instead, their goal is to weaken, delay implementation, or otherwise undermine the limits and their effect on the professionals who dictate public policy.

In Montana and Arkansas, legislators have placed measures on the ballot to as much as double the amount of time politicians can stay in office. These measures are funded by the very same well-heeled special interests who years ago spent big money against term limits. Now they claim they want to "fix" term limits so they'll "work" - for them.

Over 99 percent of the money for this year's weaken-the-limit measures, same as the 2002 attempt to undermine limits in California, comes from special interests ? teachers' unions, public employee unions, monopoly industries and those industries heavily subsidized and regulated by politicians. These are the same political big shots whose lobbyists swarm our state legislatures and who fervently oppose the limits they now dishonestly say they support . . . if only the term limits were long enough to restore domination by careerists once again, say perhaps 20, 50 or 100-year limits.

The political professionals want government run for the benefit of the political professionals ? from lobbyists, whose influence is heightened by "career" relationships with legislators, to professors, enamored with professional and tenured status (including their own), to the politicians themselves. In their view, they are the experts who should dictate policies . . . for our own good.

Citizens see it much differently. And rightly so. If you are looking for a realistic, sophisticated class analysis, skip pseudo-scholarly tomes such as The Test of Time; try a cab driver or a bartender or the deacon of your church. The average citizen knows that the politicians aren't working for them any longer. Where is the real division in society? Between politicians and the citizens.

Who will ultimately win? That depends on us, on the people. We, mere citizens lacking any "special interest" apart from our interest in good government, must commit to battling the entrenched self-interest of the political insiders whose currently tenuous claim on power rests on weakening and then killing term limits.

My money is on the people. What about yours?