The issue that won't go away

Posted: Sep 03, 2006 12:00 AM

Really, I'm not obsessed. Sure, I talk about it some. Okay, a lot. I'm a big fan. But the thing is, the doggone subject just won't go away.

Just the other day I was minding my own business, attending a forum at the Cato Institute on Stephen Slivinski's new book, Buck Wild: How the Republicans Broke the Bank and Became the Party of Big Government, when the issue pops right out seemingly from nowhere.

Slivinski blasts the big spending Republican Congress and points to what he calls "the curse of incumbency." A curse, he says, that "can be measured in dollar terms." Slivinski recites chapter and verse of numerous studies of congressional behavior all demonstrating that politicians vote for evermore spending the longer they stay in office.

The answer, according to Slivinski, is obvious: term limits.

Yep. Term limits. And I didn't say a word.

Slivinski also pointed to the fact that only the few congressmen who made and kept term limits pledges have been able to resist the corrupting, big-spending influence of Washington and stay true to their limited government agenda. "Indeed," writes Slivinski, "many of these 'self-limiters' were the main reason the Republican Revolution was able to accomplish anything at all."

I just sat there quietly.

Next, Robert Novak, one of the few "inside" columnists to sport a true "outside" edge, offered his comments on the book and the state of our political affairs. Novak wasted no time proclaiming term limits a key solution to reverse the re-election-obsessed short-sightedness that is leading our government to fiscal insanity, bankruptcy and all the calamities that come with it.


But Novak quickly went on to diagnose a strong lack of enthusiasm on the part of our career congressmen. When it comes to term limits, Congress refuses to consider a reform supported by 3-out-of-4 citizens. Not surprising, since the careerists see no greater interest than to personally retain power.

That's when I wish I could have expounded on my view that term limits (and other reforms) will ultimately bubble up to Congress from the states and localities. Why? Voters in many cities and states enjoy initiative rights and can go over the heads of politicians to clean up their messes and restore effective citizen control.

At the state and local level, almost exclusively through voter initiatives, over 75 percent of Americans have term-limits for state legislators, governor and/or local elected officials. These state and local limits are proving very effective. Well, term limits are effective if you ask voters — who have slapped back repeated attempts by politicians and special interests to weaken or repeal the limits. Of course, if you ask politicians and lobbyists and other insiders, term limits have been terrible.

I guess that, too, confirms the effectiveness of the limits.

Term limitation has not caused politicians to change their stripes — after all, politicians must come from the human race. So, sure, the politicians continue to fight.

But term limits appear to be getting more firmly rooted in the culture, not less.

Last month, politicians in Kansas City, Missouri, decided they'd had enough of their term limits. Or perhaps they honestly thought voters had reversed course by now, repented from term limits and learned to love career politicians. Well, not yet. Kansas City voters smashed the repeal, 70 to 30 percent, and the measure to weaken the limits, 67 to 33 percent.

And just months ago, after voting by greater than 80 percent to place a measure on the ballot to weaken their state term limits law, Florida legislators rushed to reverse themselves by removing it. Seems a legislator or two must have mistakenly bumped into some real voters. Or perhaps a fellow legislator or lobbyist from California, Montana or Arkansas, where measures to weaken term limits were crushed in 2004 and 2002.

Still, California legislators continue their plotting, and again, I was simply minding my own business when reporters kept calling me. Legislators wanted to offer voters a deal: legislators would flip redistricting to some commission (of their friends) if voters would let legislators weaken the term limits and stay in office longer.

I wasn't amused. I broke my silence. And to save on long distance charges, I even flew out to California to talk to reporters and some activists in person. Once news started to get out about the legislative contortion, and legislators saw they would be fought, and they noticed a new initiative had been filed that would stop legislators from receiving their current lavish per diem (on top of a six-figure salary), legislators backed away from their scheme.

Perhaps someone did a poll.

And perhaps they shared the results with politicians in Orange County. Seems county supervisors had placed a measure on the ballot that would weaken their limits. This was in hopes of having "a dialogue" about the issue. But apparently, when they found that there wasn't going to be a statewide dialogue about term limits, i.e. a politician-sponsored attack, they thought better of going through with the local dialogue.

Politicians in Los Angeles didn't get the memo, however. They want to weaken term limits, from the current eight years to twelve, and their November ballot measure to do so is pretty sneaky. With the help of lobbyists, including the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, a measure was put together combining minor ethics changes with the gutting of term limits.

It won't work. But I'll keep mum . . . for the most part. I'll let the voters tell them — again and again — why this issue just won't go away.