Thursday, September 9, 2010

Term Limits

I look forward to the print edition of the Capital Times every week, and the first thing I do is flip to Paul Fanlund’s column. I like his writing style, the topics he chooses, and frequently agree with his point of view. But I must take exception with his latest offering, titled “In politics, ‘experienced’ and ‘smart’ are now slurs.”

Oh, he’s right about that. Dummies like Sarah Palin and Shawn Hannity are powerful national figures. Gretchen Carlson of Fox and Friends is a Stanford graduate and Rhodes Scholar, but she’s apparently been coached to act like a dumb blonde. (No offense to blondes.)

Fanlund points out that Senator Feingold is a Harvard Law grad and a Rhodes Scholar, and opines that such credentials these days are treated like black marks. Agreed. The media give just as much weight to the opinion of that jackass “Joe the Plumber” as they do to our Junior Senator from Wisconsin.

Fanlund says it appears in this election cycle that lack of government experience and promises of simple solutions (to complex problems) are being rewarded. Again, agreed. But this is the point in his essay where Fanlund and I disagree. He says term limits are, for lack of a better word, bad. I say we need them.

Fanlund argues “the next time you have a wiring problem, avoid hiring a repairman who is a ‘career electrician.’ To me, that makes about as much sense (as term limits)”. Fanlund says we need smart and experienced leaders with the courage to enact the tough reforms we need. Again, agreed, but where I disagree is that “smart and experienced leaders” does NOT mean people who have spent the better part of their lives playing the political games in Washington DC.

Being an electrician requires a very specific set of skills and a lot of training. We literally trust these people with our lives. Same with doctors. Airline pilots. On and on. Being a Member of Congress, as far as I’m concerned, requires vision and courage. The actual law-writing and other critical “political” functions are actually carried out by staff members, who are career civil servants, and are, indeed, “smart and experienced” experts.

The President of the United States is subject to term limits. And, since this is America, if we don’t like our laws, we just change them, as we did to allow FDR a third term. Then we, as Americans, decided to go back to the two-term law after FDR.

One of the main reasons so much corruption has crept into our Congress is, in my opinion, the constant chase for campaign money – a problem that would become far less an issue with term limits. Career public servants, like Russ Feingold, say they effectively are subject to term limits, because they don’t appoint themselves but are “re-hired” by the people. As any political observer knows, that concept is true in theory only, given the incredible power of incumbency as demonstrated in every election cycle at every level of government from dog-catcher to United States Senator.

Fanlund needs to look no farther than our own state legislature to observe the corrupting power of incumbency. Spend a few moments on the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s website and you’ll be astonished at the facts about incumbency compiled there.

It’s said the Army is run by the Sergeants. Washington is run by the bureaucrats, only a handful of whom are actually “elected.” Term limits for U.S. Congress? Absolutely. And doubly the same for our state legislature.


  1. Wasn't it precedent, rather than a law, that kept Presidents prior to FDR from seeking a third term?

    Anywhos...I agree that term limits would help prevent corruption in Congress and overall be a good thing, but then you had to go mention Feingold's name. If we had term limits then we couldn't have him as our Senator anymore, and I think he does a great job.

    Instead of term limits, move the election to the 3rd Tues in April.

  2. If American democracy worked properly, this discussion would not be necessary.

    I am not sure I’d want to return to the approach used by ancient Athens: Citizens would gather in a large, open area once a year and choose their leaders by acclaim. If a majority wanted you to represent them, you got the job. Terms were for a year. The wisdom of the day (an aspect I’d like to keep) is that anyone who wanted the job badly enough to campaign for it should not be trusted with it.

    George Washington set the two-term standard by voluntarily declining to seek a third term. It is said (he never wrote as much) that he feared a lack of limits would eventually lead to a monarchy. When FDR won a fourth term – admittedly during exceptional times – the Republicans, in full alarum, engineered the 22nd Amendment, limiting the presidency to two terms and making lame-duckery a formal part of the process. The first president affected by the amendment was the GOP’s own D.D. Eisenhower, but the move was not one they really regretted until Ronald Reagan came along.

    Back to my premise … Ideally we would have a system that drew the best. We would elect people to represent us and our interests. Instead what we tend to end up with are people who represent their political party and its agenda.

    There’s no easy way to change that. Incumbency has enormous advantages. We allow money to flow in to campaigns unfettered. Media of all sorts are effectively used to sway public opinion, oftentimes without regard for truth or accuracy, or even basic fairness. Access to these opinion-makers is reserved for those with the most money.

    Term limits would not, ipso facto, resolve this basic inequity, but would put an end to politicians acquiring a stranglehold on their seats (how’s that for an image?).

    My modification would be a limit on the number of consecutive terms a politician could hold. After two terms the pol would have to go. If the voters get buyers remorse, they could turn out the newcomer and return the ousted politician – for two more terms, if they so choose.

    I would eliminate any formal seniority system – a practice that ensconces talent and dead wood alike. Further I would follow Great Britain’s approach and outlaw all political advertising in mass-media, at least during the three months prior to the next election. The well-heeled power mongers would not like that, but then they don’t like anything that does not aggrandize their designs.

  3. the constant chase for campaign money


    A good portion of the money spent on lawmakers is an investment, and return on that investment is expected.

    It's an investment because the Fed (and the States) control much more of the economy than they should. Look for example at the number of Cabinet slots added since FDR (or since Lincoln).

    Lightbulbs, toilets, showers, gasoline formularies, diesel engines, "fair" hiring/firing, education, fertilizer regs, ...

    The list is almost endless.

    Of COURSE there are functions proper to the Feds, and the States. But once the Feds and States force counties and munis to bend to their will through control of "grants" (etc.), ....well, you can see what happens.

    Congressmen and Presidents MUST be purchased, or at least influenced, so that Fortune 200 firms can capitalize and survive.

    It ain't "term limits." It's "governing limits" which have been exceeded.

  4. More on the same here:

    Far better-written than my comment...

  5. The first commenter is right - no President was subject to term limits until Ike. (The 22nd amendment was passed during Truman's time in office, but it explicitly exempted him)

  6. California's amateur legislature is an example of the unintended consequences of term limits. They are heavily reliant on lobbyists to draft bills, which most of the lawmakers do not fully understand (look at their Enron-authored electric deregulation fiasco).

  7. Ordinary Jill brings up an interesting point about CA. I unearthed another aspect of this professional politician issue while reading "Socialism" by Ludwig von Mises, the darling of the libertarians and the Austrian School of economics.

    Von Mises says this about the profession of politics:

    "Democracry is not less democracy because leaders come forth from the masses to devote themselves entirely to politics. Like any other profession in the society dividing labour, politics demands the entire man; dilettante politicians are of no use."

    I had to laugh ruefully since I'm sympathetic to the term limits idea. But von Mises made a damned good point.

    The Town Crank