A few years ago the Utah Legislature went on record in favor of letting members of Congress serve no longer than a total of 12 years.
Now the drive to limit politicians' terms in office has been given new impetus by Tuesday's elections.This new impetus has two prongs. One prong is the high re-election rate of current members of Congress. Despite a drive to throw out incumbents, 96 percent of the House and Senate members seeking re-election succeeded this Tuesday.
The other prong is the approval in Tuesday's elections of term-limiting propositions in California, Colorado and Kansas City. Oklahoma adopted term limits earlier this fall.
As a result, efforts are now under way to put similar propositions on the ballot two years from now in at least 15 states, possibly including Utah. Though the immediate objective of such propositions is to limit the terms of state legislators, the ultimate target is Congress. Once enough states have limited legislators' terms, the strategy goes, Congress would be under plenty of pressure to follow suit.
Up to a point, the growing demand for term limits is understandable. There's always the danger that lawmakers may become so deeply entrenched in office that they pay more attention to special interests than to the public. Moreover, it's much easier for incumbents to attract campaign funds and public attention than it is for challengers.
Even so, the drive for term limits is still an exercise in sheer folly. Here's what's wrong with the scheme:
- A term limit on lawmakers would weaken the legislative branch in relation to the executive. Occasionally it takes a senior lawmaker with a long and distinctive record to stand up to an overbearing governor or president.
- At the same time, government bureaucracy would gain power. A legislative branch composed of freshmen and sophomores would be no match for veteran bureaucrats who know all the tricks.
- A term limit would restrict the function the legislative branch serves as a training ground for future governors and presidents. Lawmakers might no longer have enough time to show they have what it takes for executive office.
- The proposed limits would also weaken voters' influence on lawmakers. Once lawmakers start their final term, some of them might no longer care much what their constituents think or want.
- Despite the high re-election rate of congressional incumbents in recent years, there is substantial turnover after some years. Two-thirds of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives were not there in 1980.
- The way to curb the advantages enjoyed by incumbents is not with artificial limits on how long they may serve but with limits on some of their inordinate privileges like free-mailing of self-promoting literature and with lids on campaign funds.
- Finally, a term limit would make no distinction between effective, responsive public servants and those who pay more attention to special interests than to their own constituents. It would be a mistake to deprive the country of the services of many outstanding elected leaders whose experience and wisdom have been accumulated over long years in office.
The bottom line, then, is that there's plenty of room for improving the way America chooses its elected leaders. But imposing an artificial limit on how long they may stay in office would hurt more than help.