A Defense of Term Limits

"I'm 72 years old and I'm going to stay as long as I can," says State Rep. Dominic Jacobetti (D-Negaunee), Lansing's most career of career politicians. Jacobetti has spent the past 38 years--more than half his life--in the Michigan Legislature.

On November 3, the voters of this state will decide the fate of a citizens' initiative to limit the terms of Jacobetti, his colleagues in the State House and Senate, and those of Michigan's 16 congressmen and 2 senators. If they vote yes, and polls indicate they will, Jacobetti will be looking for something else to do well before his 80th birthday.

Proposal B on the November ballot is a constitutional amendment that would limit the terms of the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General and Secretary of State to two terms of four years each; State Representatives to three terms of two years each; State Senators to two terms of four years each; U.S. Representatives to three terms of two years each in a twelve year period; and U.S. Senators to two terms of six years each in a twenty-four year period. The limitation would apply to terms beginning on or after January 1, 1993.

Michigan and fourteen other states representing more than a third of the nation's population will vote on term limitation questions this November, thanks to one of the most massive and successful grassroots political efforts in American political history. Voters in Colorado, California and Oklahoma have already approved term limit measures.

Last year's defeat of a term limit proposal on the Washington state ballot may be difficult for the idea's opponents to repeat. That measure was peculiarly draconian, applying limits retroactively on current lawmakers. That's a tactical mistake from which term limit advocates have learned their lesson.

It was Benjamin Franklin who summed up the best case for term limits more than two centuries ago: "In free governments, the rulers are the servants, and the people their superiors....For the former to return among the latter does not degrade, but promote them."

In other words, when politicians know they must return to ordinary society and live under the laws passed while they are in Congress, they will think more carefully about the long-term effects of the programs they support. Their end-all will not be reelection, because that option will not be available. Their end-all will be to live the rest of their lives as American citizens.

The notion of the "citizen-legislator" is likely to sweep the country in the current political climate. The public is justifiably cynical about the hollow promises of professional politicians purchased with special interest money. Opponents of term limits are often the same interests who milk big government for all they can get, such as defense contractors in Washington or the Michigan Education Association in Lansing. Moreover, they are perceived increasingly by intelligent voters as advancing arguments that carry little weight.

For instance, it is charged that limits are inherently anti-democratic, that people should be free to elect whoever they want to office. Voters sense, however, that there's nothing democratic about a system that allows incumbents to amass so much power by exploiting their office that challengers can rarely win. Besides, we already fix all sorts of restrictions on who can and cannot hold office, no matter how popular they may be--from age and residency requirements to two four-year terms for the President.

Members of Congress have a built-in political machine, paid for by taxpayers, that operates to keep them in office. More than 30,000 staff people work for them, and many members actually spend more tax money on postage to mail advertisements about themselves than they get in salary. The system is a stacked deck, a political monopoly, and most voters know it.

Without long-term legislators, goes another argument, no one will be able to control the bureaucracy. Even if that were plausible (and it isn't, because legislators ultimately control the purse and the power to control the bureaucrats if they want), it overlooks the unholy alliances built up between bureaucracies and long-term legislators.

For example, Rep. John Dingell (D-Michigan), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, who has been in Congress since 1955, not only has a huge staff of his own but has 22 employees of the Government Accounting Office detailed to his office. The problem, however, is genuinely non-partisan; when it comes to empire-building within a system that encourages it, there are no party distinctions.

It is a fact that long-term lawmakers from both parties vote for more bureaucracy than do lawmakers who have been in office for shorter times. Term limits mean that lawmakers will have little reason or ability to develop cozy deals with bureaucracies.

For sure, term limits are not a cure-all for corruption and gridlock in government. But large numbers of angry Americans are looking at them as a positive structural reform, a necessary step to change the incentives of legislators so they will think more about the good of their states and country and less about their next campaign.