Friday, January 25, 2008

Political Reform, Lesson 6: Throwing the Bums Out

The first discussion on the issue of term limits that I recall having was with a political reporter at a newspaper where I once worked. He was such a firm believer in the power of the voting booth that he didn't see the need for term limits. He reasoned that term limits would work unfairly against good representatives and that all we needed to do was vote out the bad legislators. This, of course, was not an original perspective. This is the reasoning many people use in opposing term limits.

That reasoning fails on several counts. Count 1: Without term limits, those good representatives may turn into very bad career politicians. It's not a given, but look at the veteran members of Congress and compare who they are today with who they were when they were first elected. Without naming names—I'm all about keeping this impersonal—I think we could come up with one or two or 200 members of Congress who qualify as career politicians, and very bad ones at that.

Count 2: In a nation of 300 million-plus people, I do think we could scare up some effective representatives to succeed those whose terms have reached their limit. And the departing politicians, if they're all that good and effective, could surely find a way to continue serving the country.

Count 3: The good people of, say, Georgia would love the opportunity to vote out some of their career politicians. But when said politicians are so powerful that they consistently run unopposed, voting them out is not that simple. There are legislators across the land who own their districts; heaven help the candidates who mount viable campaigns opposing them.

Oh, and here's another argument against term limits: By the time a representative learns how the system in Washington (or your state capital) works, it would be time for him or her to go home for good. We need experienced members of Congress and our state legislatures, some people argue.

Counts 4 and 5: I say "Thank God!" to the first part and "Baloney!" to the second. Thank God that maybe one day none of our representatives will know how the system works. The system—politics as it is practiced in America today—is broken, corrupt, and in need of repair. I want representatives who, whether out of ignorance or determination, will pioneer a new way of doing politics. And as to the need for members of Congress with experience, I suggest that the worst kind of experience is that which comes from years, and even decades, of learning to work in a dysfunctional environment without attempting to change that environment. Again I say that in a nation of so many competent people, I do think we can find candidates whose experience outside of politics would serve the country well for a few years.

We imposed term limits on the presidency way back in the 20th century, and many independents and partisans alike feel it's time to do the same with Congress. Public support is as high as it is for the elimination of the electoral college, with more than 75 percent of the people favoring term limits. Some groups would like to impose a two-year limit on all members of Congress, while others have proposed a single, longer term. Citizens for Term Limits proposes one six-year term for senators and three two-year terms for representatives. Other groups include (“The Independent Journal for Independent Politics”), whose mission is self-evident, as is the mission of the Pennsylvania-based

Some states and municipalities have already passed term-limit laws. You can find out what's going on in your state by visiting U.S. Term Limits (“Citizen Legislators, Not Career Politicians").

And before you even ask, yes, the independents I know support term limits on independent candidates. We're nothing if not fair.

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