Greater Greater Washington

Term limits are a dangerous policy

At a recent forum, 8 of the 9 candidates for DC Council at-large endorsed legislative term limits. This is a bad idea.


Photo by kalavinka on Flickr.

It's true that DC's voters did institute term limits, but then the Council simply overturned the referendum. That's a shame. But it's also a shame that voters went for this shortsighted policy.

Term limits are generally popular, because most people generally think that elected representatives are all crooks and need to be thrown out of office. There are definitely some DC Councilmembers I'd love to throw out of office. But forcing it is not the answer. I know, because I've lived in cities with legislative term limits, and it's a problem.

Take New York. The Council (and Mayor) are limited to 2 terms, until they granted themselves a 3rd term in the last election cycle. One of the arguments behind term limits is that instead of raising money and pleasing constituencies to win reelection year after year, legislators can try to do what's best for the city.

That's a nice idea, but not what happens. Instead, the legislators spend much of the time, especially in their 2nd term, worrying about their next job. Where's that next job? Among the leading contenders are often organizations that have business before the city and would hire them as lobbyists.

In most industries, each job trains you for the next. Legislators build up skill at legislating, and government connections. If legislating suddenly becomes forbidden as a job, then those government connections are what's left.

When they're running for reelection, a politician wants two things: approval from citizens (votes) and money for campaign activities (campaign contributions). If reelection is off the table, unless a higher office is available, which is only an option for relatively few, there's nothing they want any more from the people. There's still plenty they want from the interest groups that have enough money to hire them later on.

Supporters of term limits also say that bringing in new people means fresh blood and new ideas. It does. But it also means nobody knows what they're doing. Legislators generally take almost a whole term to really figure out how to get things done. In New York, the Council spends a lot of time being fairly ineffective. So many officials are new, the staff is new, they don't understand all the issues that deeply, they don't know the politics, and they don't know each other.

It's really hard for any legislature to stand up effectively to an executive, since there's just one mayor and a lot of councilmembers. At least if the legislators are experienced, they know how to do so. We saw a lot of that last session, when the DC Council did sometimes stand up effectively to Mayor Fenty when necessary.

Studies have also found that lobbyists end up with more influence. That's because when legislators are really new, they have to learn about the issues, and it's easiest to learn from those who are paid to come into their office and explain things. It's a lot harder to get input from thousands of residents. Over time, a legislator does.

Instituting term limits would mean we would have a weak council with members who quickly start to care more about their next job than doing the job, and others who are trying to make headlines as fast as possible to set up for another run for higher office.

That's not good for DC.

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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Ugh, term limits? As a native Californian I can attest to the horrific damage they can do to a legislature and would hate to see them take root here.

by OctaviusIII on Apr 6, 2011 10:53 am • linkreport

"When they're running for reelection, a politician wants two things: approval from citizens (votes) and money for campaign activities (campaign contributions). If reelection is off the table, unless a higher office is available, which is only an option for relatively few, there's nothing they want any more from the people. There's still plenty they want from the interest groups that have enough money to hire them later on."

That's a pretty cynical view of things. You can also look at it this way: if a legislator knows they won't/can't run again, they're likely to make bold decisions since the prospect of running for re-election is off the table.

I'm still torn on term limits, but I think there's more of a debate than what you're giving credit for.

by Martin on Apr 6, 2011 10:59 am • linkreport

I'm generally with David on this issue, but I'd love to see a counter article if other GGW writers (or any readers w/ an urge to write) feel otherwise.

by Bossi on Apr 6, 2011 11:01 am • linkreport

I'd put is more succinctly: term limits are stupid because they're already built into the system. We call them ELECTIONS. The best thing you can say about them is that they represent an effort to cope with a symptom (entrenched incumbents) of some other disease that may or may not really exist.

That disease might be campaign finance or voter apathy or voter disenfranchisement or maybe it's all just sour grapes when a minority doesn't convince other people that someone should be unseated. But regardless, term limits are a "solution" that is worse than what they supposedly cure.

by Don on Apr 6, 2011 11:03 am • linkreport

Well said, David.

If bad legislators keep getting re-elected, then the answer isn't to put in term limits, it's to change whatever it is that's causing those bad legislators to get re-elected. Maybe that means changing seniority rules. Maybe it means campaign finance reform to reduce the advantages that incumbents have. Maybe it means some other creative solution. But term limits cause a lot more problems than they solve.

by Rob on Apr 6, 2011 11:05 am • linkreport

Nicely said. Thank you and congratulations.

by David on Apr 6, 2011 11:06 am • linkreport

Which candidate refused to endorse term limits?

by Steven desJardins on Apr 6, 2011 11:13 am • linkreport

Counterpoint: Marion Barry.

I actually do agree with you in principle, but I can see definite arguments in both directions.

by andrew on Apr 6, 2011 11:13 am • linkreport

No one, not one living soul on the planet can look at someone like Marion Barry and not agree that term limits wouldn't be a good thing. Why? Because sometimes (as has been evident in this town time and time again over the past 3 decades), you can't trust the electorate to do whats good for them.

You new arrivals scoff at the idea, but I would lay a large wager that if Marion Barry ran for Mayor again next time, that if he didn't win, he would come periously close to it and that only because the demo of the town has so drastically altered in the past decade.

People can identify 100 different things that have hurt DC over the past 30 years. None of them have been as long term destructive as that one man...a problem that DC would not have had to suffer through had we had term limits.

Yes, legislators spend a lot of time during their second term worrying about their next job, but it is no more or less than a legislator spends at the end of his term worrying about his next election, raising money, campaigning either so this is neither an argument for or against.

by freely on Apr 6, 2011 11:17 am • linkreport

The District of Columbia's neighbor to the east, Prince George's County, Maryland has had term limits on its County Executive and County Council for quite a few years now.

I leave it to the readers to decide if term limits there are good or bad for the county and its citizens.

by C. P. Zilliacus on Apr 6, 2011 11:25 am • linkreport

Freely: for every Marion Berry, there are literally hundreds of freshmen state legislators nationwide who turn out to be just as venal and myopic because they were selected with no eye towards long-term policy, and who have ZERO incentive to respond to the needs of the voters because re-election is off the table.

by tom veil on Apr 6, 2011 11:27 am • linkreport

Your lobbyist is my community activist.

The problem isn't lobbying. The problem is only a few companies with a lot of money on the table can afford to pay attention and advocate for issues.

by charlie on Apr 6, 2011 11:31 am • linkreport

@Tom,

You are right, and the beauty of the system is that they could be as useless as they want, but the damage is contained by their term limits.

And lets be realistic about something...once a politican, always a politician. It isn't like someone is a councilman, or mayor, or senator and isn't always looking for that "next" step up the political ladder, so it isn't like these so called useless folks are completely going off the deep end because of their term limit when they know that whatever future campaign they have will have to explain their actions.

The fact is that people can wax poetic about the percieved dangers of term limits, but Marion Barry has been the poster child time and time again for 3 decades for their usefulness.

by freely on Apr 6, 2011 11:34 am • linkreport

Given the choice, I'd rather have term limits in the 8-12 year range. Once you get past that point, you become too entrenched to get rid of and too dangerous politically. I would rather have chumps like Marion Barry and Jim Moran anywhere else than in public office. If that means that a good politician like a Tom Davis has to go somewhere else for a while, then so be it.

by movement on Apr 6, 2011 11:35 am • linkreport

Terms limits are another piece of our checks and balances system. Washington himself stepped down after two terms because he strongly believed in a system that prevented despots from gaining power. While the office of the president is an extreme example, the idea is the same.

The term limit does not need to be two terms, it could be more. None the less we have a government system that is designed to limit the power of a few (we could debate how effective it is all day, but that’s another argument). In the end it is more important to limit the power of those who would do damage (think W Bush) then to allow the few who would do good, do so for longer.

by Matt R on Apr 6, 2011 11:35 am • linkreport

So, you're saying lawmakers need better pensions, so they don't have to worry about their next job as much. I can live with that. I also have a hard time thinking that someone going through the trouble of running for elected office isn't prepared for service and needs "almost a whole term to really figure out how to get things done". Baloney. People running tend to have served on ANC boards, or as aides to council members, and aren't noobs to the system of government.

by Patrick on Apr 6, 2011 11:45 am • linkreport

I am largely opposed to term limits for the reasons people have stated. Perhaps public financing could help challengers take on 'entrenched' incumbents, or a voting method (such as IRV) that would make it harder for multiple challengers to dilute each others' votes. Someone mentioned PG county, and I don't think Virginia's gubenatorial term limits are a good idea either, but am less familiar with the VA situation.

by DCster on Apr 6, 2011 11:54 am • linkreport

@David, Nicely said. Virginia would similarly benefit from removing the 1 term limit on its governors.

by Lance on Apr 6, 2011 12:09 pm • linkreport

Having lived for a number of years in Ohio, where there are term limits on legislators, term limits do bring their own issues. What is most noticeable is that by the time the legislators are familiar with state budgeting practices and legislative procedures, they are in the last year or two of their last term, which leaves the professional staffs and the state employees as the real experts. This causes two things: either the legislators defer to their staffs and you have a professional political class driving things, or legislators propose and occasionally pass legislation that is not grounded in reality.

by ksu499 on Apr 6, 2011 12:24 pm • linkreport

Also, take a look at the current House of Representative's complete and total inability to comprehend parliamentary procedure, or even really the basic structure of the Federal government. It's embarrassing, even before you start to look at their actual policies (which are even worse).

by andrew on Apr 6, 2011 12:34 pm • linkreport

"Because sometimes (as has been evident in this town time and time again over the past 3 decades), you can't trust the electorate to do whats good for them. "

@freely ... I agree with you on a lot of things, but here, I think you've really missed. If we're not going to trust the electorate to do what's good for them, why have elections at all? Changing the faces every couple years won't make the electorate any smarter or less susceptible to the same manipulations that Bad-Representative-X was using.

Term limits are a terrible idea for one reason alone, and it's enough for me: It encourages legislators and executives to "do something" even (especially?) when they haven't studied a problem very thoroughly, just to claim accomplishments whenever they move up/over to their next position. Our representation already has enough foul incentives to act without thinking. Let's not force them to do it under a clock, too.

by Andrew in DC on Apr 6, 2011 12:37 pm • linkreport

The fact is that people can wax poetic about the percieved dangers of term limits, but Marion Barry has been the poster child time and time again for 3 decades for their usefulness.

I don't see how that follows at all. At best, this is just "benefit analysis" (cf. "cost-benefit analysis"). It may be true that term limits prevent the Marion Barrys of the world from doing damage (well, *after* their 2nd or 3rd term, at least) but what else does it prevent? What does it *cost*?

For one thing, how many Marion Barrys are actually out there? (And I mean not just the man himself, of which there may be plenty like him, but the context which induces voters to keep electing someone like that.) Is the Marion Barry phenomenon really a symptom of term limits, or rather a symptom of other dysfunctions in the District (e.g., our tricky relationship with Congress)? You say he's been the poster child for term limits for 3 decades - isn't that a lot of collateral damage to guard against one man?

Matt R appears to be joining you in insisting, without much evidence, that it's more important to toss the bums out after a couple of terms then it is to keep the good guys on after those same terms. Aside from invocations of Barry's demon, or hand-wavy arguments about "checks and balances", I'm hard pressed to find the actual justification for these assertions.

And these assertions seem to be ignoring many of the points that David and others are making, namely: there are other, better ways to solve these electoral problems, WITHOUT the collateral damage of term limits. Solutions that address the actual problems, rather than merely papering them over or exacerbating other ones.

Public campaign financing, for example, would be an excellent idea. In addition to helping distance politicians from inappropriate solicitousness toward donors, public financing would tend to encourage many more people to run - the sort of people who can't or won't run now because they are discouraged by insider politics, including greater numbers of women, young people and minorities. A more diverse, dynamic crop of candidates could itself go a very long way to countering the specter of any future Marion Barrys.

by jack lecou on Apr 6, 2011 12:49 pm • linkreport

@Andrew:

@freely ... I agree with you on a lot of things, but here, I think you've really missed. If we're not going to trust the electorate to do what's good for them, why have elections at all?

Beat me to it. Actually, I'd go further and say if the electorate is really that bad at choosing between candidates, an equally compelling argument would be that we want *no* term limits. After all, the initial selection would be random. Each election thereafter would be as likely to replace an incumbent with an even worse candidate than better.

But while incumbents have an advantage, those incumbents who make their constituents particularly happy are almost guaranteed to be reelected. And incumbents who are egregiously bad at representing their constituents will be given the boot.

Actually, the dirty little secret about "term limits" is that the appeal is in throwing out someone *else's* representatives. One might even argue it's kind of a back-door way of disenfranchising people.

by oboe on Apr 6, 2011 1:25 pm • linkreport

@Andrew,

I am not saying voting is bad, I am saying that the electorate, especially in terms of the District have voted for the wrong person in repeatedly selecting Barry, to their severe and long term detriment.

Answer this question: Do you think that the District electorate, both macro scale and then later on a ward scale have done the right thing for the past 32 years by voting for Marion Barry? He was just reelected. Do you think his reelection was the best thing possible for Ward 8?

Yes, forcibly changing the faces every 8 years IS an improvement. I don't know who would be elected in ward 8 if Barry were no longer allowed to run but the chance of that person being as completely useless and corrupt isn't large. If they are, that sucks, but we know that we would only be stuck with them for a max of "x" years.

@Jack Lecou,

How many Barrys are there? Well, we've had atleast 2 (Barry, Sharon Pratt Kelley), with the Council having another two who are well into their "Barry training", oddly both with the name "Brown".

Sure, you can spin all sorts of supposed solutions like campaign financing requirements (tried off and on federally for 50 years and has left us no closer to a "fair" system, but you are trying to address the wrong problem.

These types of rules (term limits) aren't meant to protect us from "the system", they are meant to protect us from the "people".

Can anyone name a local DC politician (DC Metro) that they wanted to stay but was thrown out by a term limit?

I made an earlier comment, that once a politican, always a politician. Thats not "entirely" true...the good ones, the ones we want to keep leave public service to make the bucks elsewhere.

Case in point, Anthony Williams. The only Mayor (heck the only DC politician) DC has ever had that I wish would have stayed. He decided not to run again so he could pursue 5 times the money working for real estate REITS and lawfirms.

Many here seem to be hung up on "what would" happen if term limits were instituted and spinning worse case scenarios that have zero historic context to DC or its local environs, rather than acknowledging the very real and very devastating problems that the District of Columbia has had for decades without them.

Acknowledging that the District will probably never get term limits, I will settle for rules forbiding felons from serving in public office but I don't expect much on that front either.

by freely on Apr 6, 2011 1:26 pm • linkreport

For as much as people bitch about Barry, he was 10x better than Kelly.

by TGEoA on Apr 6, 2011 1:42 pm • linkreport

Virginia's single term governors have been a parade of the incompetent (e.g., George Allen) and the timid (Kaine, Warner) and roughly parallel to the weak field they have elected to the Senate (Chuck Robb & John Warner were regularly voted "dumbest" and "least effective" and represented the state for years). By comparison, Marion Barry's antics are hardly a rationale for imposing term limits. He chose the the ward with the weakest political structure to end his career.

Term limits are useful for executive positions like governor or mayor, but one term is too little (witness Virginia). For legislative positions, term limits make it easier for lobbyists to capture the legislative process.

What would help the political process in DC would be to have real Congressional representation. Politicians need a way to move up and that is limited in the District.

by Rich on Apr 6, 2011 1:43 pm • linkreport

And there's an argument to be made that PG County has the largest, richest black middle-class in the country because of Barry's policies. We can argue whether Barry is some kind of Platonic "best representative" for the city as a whole, but it's hard to argue that he's representative of a good portion of the city's disenfranchised.

Look, I think Sen Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is an active force in making our country worse in just about every way. I'd love to see him unable to run for election in the next cycle. Somehow I don't think his constituents are going to see eye-to-eye on that, though. They want him in office forever--since he's all there is between them and the black helicopters of the UN shoving folding bikes and mandatory composting down their throats.

In any case, if he were term-limited, it's every bit as likely we'd get someone worse, not better.

by oboe on Apr 6, 2011 2:07 pm • linkreport

@ freely
These types of rules (term limits) aren't meant to protect us from "the system", they are meant to protect us from the "people".

Could not have said it better myself It is so easy to put on a good face, be charismatic, and look like a good politician. All the while making bad decisions, abusing the position, etc. Term limits could be 12 years, but they keep the corrupt out of power.

by Matt R on Apr 6, 2011 2:10 pm • linkreport

Sure, you can spin all sorts of supposed solutions like campaign financing requirements (tried off and on federally for 50 years and has left us no closer to a "fair" system, but you are trying to address the wrong problem.

The measures pursued at the national under the guise "campaign finance reform" have certainly been inadequate (or worse). That's not what I was suggesting though. Full public financing is a different beast altogether.

These types of rules (term limits) aren't meant to protect us from "the system", they are meant to protect us from the "people".

This is the same bad reasoning as above.

While I share your opinion that voters sometimes (often) make stupid decisions, I disagree (or rather, fail to see) the chain of reasoning that leads you from there to term limits as an appropriate response:

1. Term limits don't actually coherently address the problem you've identified (i.e., that voters are, collectively, kind of stupid/ignorant). They just sort of try to throw a wrench in the works in the vague hope that maybe about half the time the guy getting thrown out will be worse than the replacement. (This is justified as "checks and balances" somehow...) Rhetorical calls for "name someone you'd want to keep" aside, nobody here has provided any logical explanation as to why we should actually even expect this to provide results that are as good, on average, as the status quo (never mind better).

2. Although the purported benefits, if any, are vague and circumstantial, the costs are obvious. It's not only that *good* legislators may be thrown out, it's that *experience* and relationships are thrown out. See above commenters' anecdata about states with term limits where the legislature collectively doesn't understand the budget process, or each other. Or the violence done to genuine checks and balances in states/localities where the legislative branch is rendered too inexperienced and fractured to balance out a more unified and dominant executive (that danger being especially bad when the latter is a Barry or a Bush). Or the greater potential for "revolving door" problems inherent in kicking politicians back on the street after only a term or two, rather than cultivating responsible career politicians.

3. There are many other responses to this perceived problem which may be both more direct and less damaging. Public financing is just one (but not to be underestimated). It's also possible to structure government in ways that make it more difficult for bad political eggs to do much damage. Increasing the consideration given to professional, non-political, layers in the bureaucracy, for example. Or careful use of various kinds of expert commission and the like for various key issues. Increasing the independence of the judicial and law enforcement is also a good tool - especially if you're talking about guarding against outright corruption.

by jack lecou on Apr 6, 2011 2:18 pm • linkreport

I made an earlier comment, that once a politican, always a politician. Thats not "entirely" true...the good ones, the ones we want to keep leave public service to make the bucks elsewhere.

I very much doubt that politicians who voluntarily leave after a term or two to pursue greater profit elsewhere are really the sort of dedicated public servants I'd want to label the "good ones".

(That said, I'm actually all for reasonable increases in salary and pensions for council members and the like, for roughly the same reasons that I oppose term limits.)

by jack lecou on Apr 6, 2011 2:24 pm • linkreport

It's not only that *good* legislators may be thrown out, it's that *experience* and relationships are thrown out.

Well, said. This bears repeating.

I think there's a reason support for "term limits" tends to go hand-in-hand with a contempt for expertise in general. Making legislation is a complicated business.

by oboe on Apr 6, 2011 2:27 pm • linkreport

“The cemeteries of the world are full of indispensable men.”

by Kolohe on Apr 6, 2011 2:40 pm • linkreport

Could not have said it better myself It is so easy to put on a good face, be charismatic, and look like a good politician. All the while making bad decisions, abusing the position, etc. Term limits could be 12 years, but they keep the corrupt out of power.

Well, first of all, they don't "keep the corrupt out of power", they just make sure *particular* corrupt individuals can only maintain power in a particular office for a fixed length of time.

And of course, they also keep everyone else out of power, to at least the same degree. Characterizing term limits as "keeping the corrupt out of power" implies that they discriminate somehow. That they are biased at least a little bit more against the corrupt and incompetent. They're not. No distinction is made.

Not to be too hyperbolic, but praising term limits on this basis seems rather like praising a house fire because it burns up all the rats and cockroaches. Term limits aren't a scalpel, or even shotgun; they're non-directional - a hand grenade.

by jack lecou on Apr 6, 2011 2:41 pm • linkreport

@Jack

You make a good point that term limits only keep the corrupt in power for a short period of time, not out of power. I just feel that was the whole idea behind the government our founding fathers created.

The age limit of 35 for president was created because at the time the average life expectancy was 42, for example. The figured it would keep from having a despot. I pretty much agree with their belief.

I used to think like you too, but I have seen what being in office for a long time can do. Many politicians become disconnected with the very people they are representing.

by Matt R on Apr 6, 2011 2:53 pm • linkreport

"He was just reelected. Do you think his reelection was the best thing possible for Ward 8?"

@freely

I think Ward 8 will elect the representation it deserves. Whether his name is Marion Barry or Mickey Mouse is irrelevant. The fact that we both absolutely loathe the man as an utterly contemptible pile of felonious trash who shouldn't be allowed to hold an HOA board membership, let alone Councilmembership in the national capital is irrelevant.

I will not advocate the restriction of another man's right to vote for whomever he wishes.

"I don't know who would be elected in ward 8 if Barry were no longer allowed to run but the chance of that person being as completely useless and corrupt isn't large."

I completely disagree. The newly elected individual would be a virtual appointee of Barry - and would be every bit as likely to be useless and corrupt. Or, at the very least, susceptible to such vices.

But what we're really getting back to is a fundamental flaw in the democratic process as a whole. An uneducated electorate, especially one in which the majority has an axe to grind, cannot be expected to install responsible leadership -- which is why, for example, "young" democracies are more likely to go to war than either dictatorships or mature democracies.

by Andrew in DC on Apr 6, 2011 2:55 pm • linkreport

@Freely, what's up with your Barry H_ard-on?

Marion Barry's "term" ended in the late 90's. Based on what I understand as DC's unfortunate position of being the nations capital, it's hard to argue that term limits would have produced a significantly "better" DC. This, coupled with crack epidemic, violence, black/white flight etc was a lab experiment certain to cause problems. A term limit would not have eliminated those issues - not at all. Your logic is similar to that expressed by Fenty/Rhee supporters who miraculously concluded that NOTHING good happened in education until they came along. What they fail to mention is how the entire structure was changed under Rhee.

I don't know why you are insisting that DC has a problem with it's electorate. The entire US has problems with its electorate because people all over the country vote for people they shouldn't. Strom Thurmond basically died in the Senate. Sarah Palin was governor. George Bush was reelected. Adrian Fenty was mayor. Kwame Kilpatrick was mayor and the list goes on. So it's an american problem certainly not isolated to the people of DC.

And by the way, while Barry has some major issues, other than your opinion, can you prove that as councilmember, he has been "bad" for Ward 8? Not liking him and wishing he would fall from the face of the earth is quite different from proof of his ineffectiveness (and even that is a matter of opinion.

by HogWash on Apr 6, 2011 2:58 pm • linkreport

The age limit of 35 for president was created because at the time the average life expectancy was 42, for example. The figured it would keep from having a despot. I pretty much agree with their belief.

I might quibble with the history there, but I agree with the sentiment. I'm much more sympathetic to reasonable term limits for executive office.

And I think it's very important to make that distinction. Executive and legislative dynamics are quite different. "Despot" is simply never going to be an accurate way to characterize a legislator or council member, no matter how corrupt or entrenched they may be in a particular district. (And, on the other hand, experienced legislators are very important to counter the concentrated power available to genuine would-be despots in the executive.)

by jack lecou on Apr 6, 2011 3:01 pm • linkreport

@Andrew, I totally disagree with you that any rep subsequent to Barry will be useless. That actually makes little sense, especially if they are running "against" Barry. Barry is really not the Idi Amin you make him out to be.

I support term limits. But I also realize that it also depends on the position/area in which you live. DC Council should be limited to 4 terms, Mayor 2 terms.

House Members should have no more than 25 years in office. Senators should croak after 4 terms.

NYC should have never approved Bloomberg's self-indulgent proposal to extend his term.

Frankly, if you're a member of DC council and can't get your act together after serving three terms, the 4th should be your last option.

by HogWash on Apr 6, 2011 3:18 pm • linkreport

Term limits have been a net improvement in California, they helped to break up the culture of corruption and power brokers in Sacramento. Are there many people who would really like to go back to the days of Willie Brown?

Different places have different circumstances and may need different solutions, but, in general, the main question is do you believe more, "People who spend more time in the legislature develop expertise and knowledge that is valuable," or, "People who spend more time in the legislature become more disconnected from the world outside of government and more captured by special interests"? On the whole, I think the latter is the better reading of history.

by David desJardins on Apr 6, 2011 3:28 pm • linkreport

@Matt R: The age limit of 35 for president was created because at the time the average life expectancy was 42, for example. The figured it would keep from having a despot.

That's really off the mark because it misunderstands what "life expectancy" is. Life expectancy was low in the 18th century because so many people died in childhood. But, once a person reached age 35, they would still be expected to live another 30 years or more, especially if they were wealthy.

by David desJardins on Apr 6, 2011 3:31 pm • linkreport

@HogWash:

Two thoughts:

1) Just because other various electorates promote idiots is no excuse for us to do so. There are actually decent politicians out there.

2) The fact that the Council chairman's race came down to Kwame Brown on one hand versus Vince Orange on the other really speaks to problems that won't be addressed by term limits.

"Term Limits: More bad candidates, faster."

by oboe on Apr 6, 2011 3:31 pm • linkreport

@HogWash: On point one, I'm agreeing with you wholeheartedly. Sorry if it sounded like I wasn't. DC is certainly the norm, not the exception.

by oboe on Apr 6, 2011 3:33 pm • linkreport

Harry Reid put it very well, "We already have term limits. It's called an election."

by Rob on Apr 6, 2011 3:36 pm • linkreport

Different places have different circumstances and may need different solutions, but, in general, the main question is do you believe more, "People who spend more time in the legislature develop expertise and knowledge that is valuable," or, "People who spend more time in the legislature become more disconnected from the world outside of government and more captured by special interests"? On the whole, I think the latter is the better reading of history.

I think it's more complicated than that.

Even if you fall into the latter camp, the next logical step isn't "therefore, term limits", it is to actually ask "in what ways can we go about discouraging legislators from becoming disconnected from constituents and captured by special interests?"

Term limits appear to be a very direct and viscerally appealing "answer" to that problem, but they're ultimately a very naive and potentially destructive one. Especially as there are better options. (And note that term limits don't really even answer the question. They just end the game early, substituting one problem for another. For analogy, consider preemptive amputation vs. antibiotics as responses to the danger from gangrene.)

by jack lecou on Apr 6, 2011 3:40 pm • linkreport

the next logical step...is to actually ask, "in what ways can we go about discouraging legislators from becoming disconnected from constituents and captured by special interests?"

I should add that there would be some other important questions to ask as well, such as "to what extent is 'time in office' really the explanatory variable, as opposed to other factors as dependence on campaign contributions, cynicism engendered by a dysfunctional political system, etc.?"

Those answers might suggest a number of other solutions that have nothing to do with term limits.

by jack lecou on Apr 6, 2011 3:50 pm • linkreport

"That actually makes little sense, especially if they are running "against" Barry. "

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by this comment. If Barry has been term-limited, as was stipulated, there would be an individual from Barry's coterie and, presumably, an individual who is not. And I think the guy in Huey Long's Richard Daley's Marion Barry's camp stands a significantly better chance.

"if you're a member of DC council and can't get your act together after serving three terms, the 4th should be your last option"

"your"? act? Again, I have no idea what you're driving at with this statement. I could interpret "act" to be one's "personal agenda" (leveraging experience in order to advance to the next elected spot or a lucrative lobbyist's billet) or "legislation the public wants pushed through".

by Andrew in DC on Apr 6, 2011 3:51 pm • linkreport

@jack lecou: Even if you fall into the latter camp, the next logical step isn't "therefore, term limits", it is to actually ask "in what ways can we go about discouraging legislators from becoming disconnected from constituents and captured by special interests?"

I disagree. The right question, when considering term limits, is to ask whether they make the current situation better or worse. Whether term limits would be necessary or worthwhile in an alternate universe with clean elections, drastically less lobbying, and other constraints on the power of special interests, is only relevant if you find a way to move to that alternate universe. Otherwise, we're stuck in the universe we have, where the power of special interests largely dominates our democracy, and that isn't going to change any time soon (in fact it's getting worse). We have to ask whether term limits help in our actual universe.

And it's not "naive" if I look at the effects of term limits and consider them good. Maybe I just have different priorities and values than you do, but it's not naive if I'm actually observing the actual effects and I like them. If we're going to talk about "naive", I think the main source of naivete here is that most progressives are against term limits originally because they were originally a conservative idea. Being against something just because your opponents were once for it, is the height of naivete, in my view.

by David desJardins on Apr 6, 2011 4:12 pm • linkreport

Most people support term limits (according to some polling I've seen).

Most people want to reelect their representatives.

Thus, term limits are designed to keep other people from re-electing the people they want to have represent them because you don't like who they've chosen.

Does anyone think we'd be better off if FDR had left office in 1941?

I'm basically against any limits on the electorate. They should vote for the person they want to represent them. If America wants to elect a 27 year old who was born a Polish citizen as president, why shouldn't that be their right? Do you not think they are smart enough to know better? And if not, why have elections? We shouldn't have term limits or age limits or nationality-by-birth requirements or anything.

Also, Washington quit after two terms because he wanted to get back to Mt. Vernon. He was done. He didn't think three terms was the slippery slope to monarchy.

Frankly, I wish I could have voted for Reagan in 88 and Clinton in 2000. I'm going to be disappointed when I can't vote for Obama in 2016. All term limits do is hurt you when you have a candidate you like.

We should do what we can to limit the electoral advantages of incumbency, but term limits is taking it too far.

by David C on Apr 6, 2011 4:40 pm • linkreport

@David C: Most people support term limits (according to some polling I've seen). Most people want to reelect their representatives. Thus, term limits are designed to keep other people from re-electing the people they want to have represent them because you don't like who they've chosen.

This is a silly argument, and it misses the whole point of why people like term limits (which at least you acknowledge). Most people would like to pay zero taxes. Yet most people want taxes to be imposed on everyone. There's no contradiction there. People can be in favor of constraints that constrain themselves as well as everyone else.

by David desJardins on Apr 6, 2011 4:49 pm • linkreport

@Oboe, I agree that there are great pols out there. In fact, I believe most of them are truly interested in serving their constituency. I just happen to believe we should have term limits.

Think of the two most memorable congressional former racists, Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd. They had to be wheeled out of the Senate and their usefulness had long been gone. Only their seniority mattered.

@Andrew, I made that comment under the assumption that if someone were to run against Barry w/o term limits in mind. I do agree that anyone who wins an election in Ward 8 will ultimately have to kiss the ring of Barry. However, I do not believe that person would be a Barry clone - if such person exists at all.

Your "act" casually refers to handling your business. You've never heard the phrase, "XYZ needs to get his act together"? Rarely have I heard it interpreted as get his "personal agenda" together.

by HogWash on Apr 6, 2011 5:22 pm • linkreport

David, I think I have hit exactly the reason why people like term limits. It's because those (fill in expletive here) over in (fill in name of other colored state here) keep electing (fill in name of boogey man politician here). Don't they know how corrupt he/she is? Term limits will fix them.

Taxes are a very very silly comparison. A government can't exist without taxes, but does quite well without term limits. That is so silly. Why would you say something so silly. Silly willy.

by David C on Apr 6, 2011 5:26 pm • linkreport

I disagree. The right question, when considering term limits, is to ask whether they make the current situation better or worse.

No, obviously you still have to ask the questions and look at all the alternatives. At least implicitly. Otherwise you risk doing the equivalent of performing an amputation when antibiotics are readily available. (Got a leg with gangrene? - Yes. - Will amputation be marginally better than the status quo? - Uh. I guess... - Then hurry up and amputate!)

It may well be that you've already decided that other alternatives (like public financing) are either going to be either ineffective or politically non-viable, it seems to me there is quite a lot of room for debate there. And those are debates you at least have to acknowledge before leaping straight to term limits, with all their obvious downsides.

Whether term limits would be necessary or worthwhile in an alternate universe with clean elections, drastically less lobbying, and other constraints on the power of special interests, is only relevant if you find a way to move to that alternate universe.

See above.

by jack lecou on Apr 6, 2011 5:33 pm • linkreport

@David C: David, I think I have hit exactly the reason why people like term limits. It's because those (fill in expletive here) over in (fill in name of other colored state here) keep electing (fill in name of boogey man politician here). Don't they know how corrupt he/she is? Term limits will fix them.

I, on the other hand, think you are advancing a disingenuous strawman that no one could possibly believe.

If you don't like taxes as an example, take any other example of what government does. People would like to be able to drive faster when they are in a hurry. But they also think we should have speeding laws. I can give literally thousands of examples of cases where people support laws and rules that constrain them from doing what they themselves would like to do in particular cases, because they think those rules are good for society.

by David desJardins on Apr 6, 2011 5:38 pm • linkreport

@jack lecou: It may well be that you've already decided that other alternatives (like public financing) are either going to be either ineffective or politically non-viable, it seems to me there is quite a lot of room for debate there.

There's not much debate that we have spent decades fighting for these things and our society is moving in the opposite direction. I personally have spent considerable effort and hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct and indirect support of the idea of public financing of elections, yet the results are negative. If in some distant future we live in a society where the domination of democracy by special interests is no longer our biggest problem, then maybe we can decide then we don't need term limits, I have no problem with that. But in the present world that we inhabit right now, there's no chance we are going to have widespread public financing of elections any time soon (and even that wouldn't be enough to make a big dent in the problem, given Citizens United and its descendants, which would also have to be changed or overruled, etc.), and so we still have to face the question of whether, in the actual real world, term limits do more harm than good, or the reverse.

It's not one or the other. The existence of term limits doesn't make it harder to get public financing or overrule bad Supreme Court decisions.

by David desJardins on Apr 6, 2011 5:44 pm • linkreport

If you don't like taxes as an example, take any other example of what government does. People would like to be able to drive faster when they are in a hurry. But they also think we should have speeding laws.

I think both Davids are right.

On the one hand, I don't think there's necessarily anything inconsistent about supporting a rule, but not obeying it until it is in place. It would, I think, be a little eccentric for a person to voluntarily refuse to vote for a non-term limited politician they liked, even if that person supported term limits; or to voluntarily pay a tax they supported that was not yet passed into law; or to voluntarily drive 45 mph at all times because they felt that ought to be the speed limit.

On the other hand, I think it's also true that almost any rule you can think of is actually meant for "other people". After all, *I* always vote for the right politicians. *I* always drive safely. It's all those other people that are the menace. We need some rules to keep them in line.

by jack lecou on Apr 6, 2011 5:47 pm • linkreport

@jack lecou: On the other hand, I think it's also true that almost any rule you can think of is actually meant for "other people". After all, *I* always vote for the right politicians. *I* always drive safely. It's all those other people that are the menace. We need some rules to keep them in line.

You have a much lower opinion of your fellow citizens than I do. I don't think that way, and I don't think that most people do either. Our political discourse is dominated by egotistical people on both sides who think they obviously have the right solutions and ideas and the other side are idiots. And there are certainly a few issues on which that is the case (e.g., global warming is just a fact, you can't take seriously a political movement that's built around calling it a hoax). But, for the most part, both sides have some valid points and the silent majority see that everything is not black and white and it's not just "those other guys" who are the problem.

by David desJardins on Apr 6, 2011 5:56 pm • linkreport

There's not much debate that we have spent decades fighting for these things and our society is moving in the opposite direction. I personally have spent considerable effort and hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct and indirect support of the idea of public financing of elections, yet the results are negative.

Really? IIRC, states including Maine and Connecticut already have successful public financing systems, and, I believe, plans to augment and expand them. A number of other states may also have at least the beginnings.

Reform efforts at the national level have been pretty shabby so maybe that's what you're talking about, but these things are actually much easier at the state or city level, despite the fact that there isn't a lot of coordinated effort yet.

In DC, has this actually already failed conclusively? I doubt it, but I confess that I haven't looked into it.

And note, again, that public financing is only one reform. Other more subtle reforms - various particular administrative and legislative reorganizations, for example - can be just as important. (As can the general fact that good government is something of a vicious/virtuous cycle. Failure and corruption begets failure and corruption, as in the Barry years, perhaps, but positive momentum can be built up as well.)

and so we still have to face the question of whether, in the actual real world, term limits do more harm than good, or the reverse.

Yes. And I'm in the more harm than good camp (among other reasons, because they provide the appearance of having addressed the issue, while fundamentally solving nothing) but I can see how one might view them as better than nothing if one were in the other camp.

It's not one or the other. The existence of term limits doesn't make it harder to get public financing or overrule bad Supreme Court decisions.

Well, inexperienced novice legislators eager for advice and assistance from lobbyists don't seem like the most likely group to pass something like public financing support to me, but I guess opinions may differ.

by jack lecou on Apr 6, 2011 6:07 pm • linkreport

You have a much lower opinion of your fellow citizens than I do. I don't think that way, and I don't think that most people do either. Our political discourse is dominated by egotistical people on both sides who think they obviously have the right solutions and ideas and the other side are idiots.

That the majority of the US voting population is completely uninformed and incapable of reason is orthagonal to whether or not "the other side" is right or wrong. In short, the American people know nothing, and are incapable of applying that knowledge in a reasonable manner.

You have a much lower opinion of your fellow citizens than I do.

I've read a lot of polling on what folks believe, so I imagine I have a much lower opinion of my fellow citizens than you think I do.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/05/AR2008090502666.html

by oboe on Apr 6, 2011 6:20 pm • linkreport

@jack lecou: Reform efforts at the national level have been pretty shabby so maybe that's what you're talking about, but these things are actually much easier at the state or city level, despite the fact that there isn't a lot of coordinated effort yet.

This is something I know a lot more than you about. There is a huge coordinated effort to advance public financing, especially at the state and local level. The biggest problem is that there's an even huger coordinated effort to oppose it.

The Supreme Court blocked Arizona's public finance law last year, and in hearings just last week made it clear they are going to gut it in their ruling later this year.

In California, we couldn't even pass a public finance law for the Secretary of State (the office that administers elections and arguably is the most in need of insulation from the influence of special interests).

This is a tremendously important issue, and I'm not giving up, but it is going nowhere any time soon, and in the past several years we have been making negative progress.

inexperienced novice legislators eager for advice and assistance from lobbyists

This doesn't make much sense to me. Why would "inexperienced novice legislators" be more likely to seek "advice and assistance from lobbyists"? If it's just that they lack information, there are plenty of real nonprofits out there eager to argue for and support any side of any real issue. It's the long-time legislators who become acculturated to the idea that the people with money are the ones who get access and influence. It's hard to blame them, if you spend several hours a day doing nothing but calling people to ask them for money, and sucking up to them, it's not surprising that your natural barriers and sense of what is right get broken down over time.

by David desJardins on Apr 6, 2011 6:20 pm • linkreport

You have a much lower opinion of your fellow citizens than I do. I don't think that way, and I don't think that most people do either.

It's not a low opinion, it's just a fundamental fact of human nature and collective action problems.

We all need certain external constraints on our behavior, but we don't tend to acknowledge that on an individual level. I view myself as a reasonably responsible person, so if you were to offer me immunity from speed limit laws, my first thought is not that I would irresponsibly abuse that privilege. I'd think that I could handle it and still drive safely. I'd think the same of other responsible drivers I know.

But, just as "obviously", we collectively need speed limits. So how do I reconcile that? Do I look deep down within myself and realize that, yeah, maybe impunity to drive as fast as I want might not be a good thing? Not necessarily. I really just have to think of my cousin Steve, who certainly didn't make that mental list of responsible drivers, and who probably shouldn't be trusted with a license at all. Voila, my gut gives me a good reason we need speeding laws (even if it isn't, in actual fact, the only reason).

by jack lecou on Apr 6, 2011 6:21 pm • linkreport

This doesn't make much sense to me. Why would "inexperienced novice legislators" be more likely to seek "advice and assistance from lobbyists"? If it's just that they lack information, there are plenty of real nonprofits out there eager to argue for and support any side of any real issue.

Well,

1) Just in case I wasn't clear, I'm using what I think is common parlance: even non-profit lobbyists are still lobbyists, even the good guys. Technically, unions, the ACLU, the EFF, the Sierra Club, etc., are all "special interests", even if they do happen to be the interests I'd prefer my legislators to be listening to over banks or oil companies.

2) Somebody still paid to get that freshman legislator into office. I don't really buy the idea that new legislators are somehow virgins, untainted by money influence. If anything, the reverse can just as easily be true, new legislators may be excessively reliant on the particular moneyed interest or wealthy group of friends that fostered them. A veteran legislator has the luxury of an inherent electoral advantage, and a lot more people vying for his attention. That may give him the latitude to do something at least slightly more approximating the right thing on occasion.

3) New legislators don't necessarily have the experience to, say, write their own bill or amendment (on any non-trivial issue), rather than simply proffering up the one written for them. Nor do they necessarily have the connections or relationships to shepherd it through the process if they did. If they want to get something done, or be seen to get something done, the easiest way is going to be to rely on a well financed lobbyist friend or two. An experienced legislator, even one beholden to certain interests, may at least be able to write his own bills, or to shepherd other pet issues through.

4) If there's any alternative to the above for novice legislators, it's to simply sign on unreservedly to their own party's platform. Term limits handily insure that no legislator ever really has the seniority to buck that. And yet the continuity provided by the party can be every bit as corrupt as any individual legislator, without any troublesome twinges of conscience.

It's the long-time legislators who become acculturated to the idea that the people with money are the ones who get access and influence. It's hard to blame them, if you spend several hours a day doing nothing but calling people to ask them for money, and sucking up to them, it's not surprising that your natural barriers and sense of what is right get broken down over time.

Sure. It all sounds very corrupting. On the other hand, at least someone who's been around a few cycles has this down to something of a science and can focus as much energy as possible on real work. And, as above, it's just as easy to argue that novice legislators are pretty susceptible to influence (or are already under someone's influence) themselves. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was, in the end, just a movie.

What I'd like to see is some actual empirical evidence that actual legislative outcomes produced by freshman legislators, or by term limited legislatures, is superior, or even equal, to the alternative.

by jack lecou on Apr 6, 2011 6:48 pm • linkreport

This is a tremendously important issue, and I'm not giving up, but it is going nowhere any time soon, and in the past several years we have been making negative progress.

Well, I'm happy to hear that it's at least on the radar. It's not something that makes the rounds in the political circles I'm in, I guess.

I'm disappointed that it's not going anywhere right now, but I hope you do keep it up. I appreciate it.

by jack lecou on Apr 6, 2011 6:52 pm • linkreport

@jack lecou: It's not a low opinion, it's just a fundamental fact of human nature and collective action problems. We all need certain external constraints on our behavior, but we don't tend to acknowledge that on an individual level.

This is clearly not a fundamental fact of human nature. I don't think like this, and I am human. QED.

I don't know how you would measure how common this way of thinking is. I believe you when you talk about how you yourself think, but I think it is a form of projection or rationalization for you to infer that everyone else thinks like you. It is commendably honest for you to describe how you think, but I still find it rather selfish and self-absorbed, and I really don't think that most people are like that.

by David desJardins on Apr 6, 2011 8:05 pm • linkreport

Seriously, nobody that notes that taking away the passive voting rights of people is perhaps undemocratic? Should the people not be able to vote for whomever it pleases them?

by Jasper on Apr 6, 2011 8:39 pm • linkreport

@Jasper: Seriously, nobody that notes that taking away the passive voting rights of people is perhaps undemocratic?

Seriously, are we trying to build a government that actually works, or are we trying to defend some set of abstract principles? If I didn't have children, perhaps I'd be more sympathetic to the latter, but, as it happens, I care about the future, a lot.

In the abstract world of Homo economicus, political advertising wouldn't even exist (since everyone is completely rational and instantly incorporates all available information, you couldn't change people's votes just by buying ads on TV), and the major problem that term limits are intended to address wouldn't even exist.

So much for theory.

Term limits have two purposes: to reduce the domination of government by long-term incumbents (who in the theoretical world wouldn't have any advantage of incumbency, since the voters would all choose de novo amongst all available candidates), and to rotate people through government thus increasing the diversity of points of view represented (the same reason we have legislators made up of many candidates rather than just electing one person to make all of the laws---term limits are the same thing but with divisions in time rather than space). In theoretical ideal democracy, none of that would matter. In the real world, it's profoundly important.

by David desJardins on Apr 6, 2011 9:03 pm • linkreport

I, on the other hand, think you are advancing a disingenuous strawman that no one could possibly believe.

You're entitled to your opinion, but how I read this:

"The fact is, despite the statewide power he wields, the vast majority of Illinoisans haven’t elected Madigan to anything."

is that "we don't like this guy and even though his constituents keep electing him to office and a majority of house members, at least one of which we elected, keep voting him speaker we would like him out." Any speaker who replaces that guy is going to be exactly the same (i.e. not elected by a vast majority). But they want him gone. So, now a strawman in my opinion.

Term limits have two purposes: to reduce the domination of government by long-term incumbents... and to rotate people through government thus increasing the diversity of points of view represented

On one, someone will dominate government. In this case, there will still be a mayor and a chairman. And they will wield more power than the others. Why is domination by short-term incumbents or newbies better than long-term incumbents.

I'm also not convinced that rotating elected officials in and out of office increases the diversity of opinions. Has California's state legislature had a wider set of opinions because of it's term limits or just a wider set of people with the same opinions.

I'd like an example of where you think term limits have made things better.

And how do you determine what the right limit is? If two terms is good, is one even better? How about annual turn over? Or monthly? What is the right number?

And again, would we have been better off if FDR had left office in 1941?

by David C on Apr 6, 2011 11:16 pm • linkreport

@David C: "we don't like this guy and even though his constituents keep electing him to office and a majority of house members, at least one of which we elected, keep voting him speaker we would like him out."

Actually, that's not what the linked article says, at all. What it says is that the seniority system in which legislators acquire much more power than their peers just because they have been in office longer, is profoundly undemocratic (why should the representative of your legislative district have more influence than mine because he's been in office longer??). They don't care that one district chooses to elect a legislator whom they don't agree with, they just don't think he should have vastly more power than his peers. This is another good argument for term limits. (There are other ways in theory to attack seniority, but they haven't worked, while this has.)

I'm also not convinced that rotating elected officials in and out of office increases the diversity of opinions.

This is like not being convinced that the sky is blue. Having more people serve means there will be more different views than if fewer people serve. That's like 2+2=4.

How do we decide what the right limits are? Vote, of course. Is it *always* the case that term limits will give a better result than the alternative? Of course not, but so what? You're throwing out arguments that make little sense. We have to make the decision that's going to be best on average; no one claims it's going to be best in every single case. Is Social Security a bad program because we have to make an arbitrary decision *how much* to pay in benefits? Is government-funded research a bad idea if *one* researcher commits fraud with his dollars? These are just spurious reasoning.

by David desJardins on Apr 6, 2011 11:28 pm • linkreport

I agree that seniority is a big problem in many legislatures.

It's not a problem in DC, to get back a bit to the specific place the article was referring to. Here, there are only 12 councilmembers plus the chair, and each gets a committee, so it's not really the case at all that Jack Evans, the most senior member, has a lot more power than a relatively new member like Michael Brown. He gets a somewhat more desirable committee, but it's nothing like Congress where someone isn't chairman of anything unless he's there 30 years.

Term limits might fix that, but they also create other serious problems. Maybe in some states it's worth it, though I wonder if there isn't a better tailored solution to that issue.

Maybe the separately elected chairman we have in DC helps deemphasize seniority. Since the chairman isn't as beholden to the other members, there's less reason for him to respect the ones that are there longer.

by David Alpert on Apr 6, 2011 11:40 pm • linkreport

What it says is that the seniority system in which legislators acquire much more power than their peers just because they have been in office longer, is profoundly undemocratic

That's interesting, because the article never mentions seniority or anything being undemocratic. They guy has more power because he's speaker. He was given that power by other elected officials. How is that undemocratic?

why should the representative of your legislative district have more influence than mine because he's been in office longer??

He doesn't. If he does, it's because he was elected to have that power by his peers. Is John Dingell the most powerful house member? Is Bill Young speaker? No. So longevity does not = power. Boehner is 55th in seniority. Kevin McCarthy, the house whip is 282nd.

They don't care that one district chooses to elect a legislator whom they don't agree with, they just don't think he should have vastly more power than his peers.

Then they don't think there should be any leaders in the house.

This is another good argument for term limits. (There are other ways in theory to attack seniority, but they haven't worked, while this has.)

No it isn't. Someone is going to be speaker, and that someone is going to have more power. Why would it be better if that person is inexperienced?

Having more people serve means there will be more different views than if fewer people serve.

Not if the replacements have generally the same opinions as the people they replace. Minor differences may exist, but on average the views would stay the same - only the experience would drop.

How do we decide what the right limits are? Vote, of course.

That's what we already do. Ask Fenty about it.

by David C on Apr 6, 2011 11:55 pm • linkreport

@David C: That's interesting, because the article never mentions seniority or anything being undemocratic.

@The article: "Illinois’ Speaker of the House since 1983 (with a two-year hiatus in the 1990s when Republicans controlled the House), the Democratic representative from District 22 near Chicago’s Midway Airport has accumulated too much power over the years."

OK, I'm done responding to stuff that's so blatantly false.

by David desJardins on Apr 7, 2011 12:30 am • linkreport

This is like not being convinced that the sky is blue. Having more people serve means there will be more different views than if fewer people serve. That's like 2+2=4.

I think we would have to disagree on this. It isn't anything like this certain, and I think simple observation bears it out.

It is probably true that, in some trivial sense, more people means more views. The trouble is that most of those views may be on equally trivial topics. It does very little good for a group of legislators to have a nice diversity of opinions about everything from baseball zoology if they all still line up uniformly behind the few particular opinions that will bear on policy that session, like that tax cuts for the wealthy are a great thing to do in the middle of a recession.

I think our actual experience with term limited state legislatures (and with Congress in sessions with large numbers of incoming lawmakers) is that something like this is exactly the case. I certainly wouldn't characterize those situations as ones where a great deal of diversity of opinions on major policy issues are entertained.

The fact is, term limits are probably quite useful to exactly the powerful interests I think we are all most concerned about. Or at least they are no hindrance. It is no great matter for those interests to go out and groom some new handsome face to put up for office every couple of terms. All it really means is that those behind the scenes will be the *only* ones with the connections and power, never the empty suit in the legislative seat.

And those term limits are fatal to any genuine statesmen that might otherwise have a chance of holding onto a seat, or even those who aren't exactly statesmen but might nevertheless eventually be in a position to do some small good around an issue that isn't of immediate concern to their donor base.

Anyway, I too think this discuss ion would be more interesting if it returned to the specifics of DCs situation (which I don't know much about, so should probably just keep quiet).

by jack lecou on Apr 7, 2011 1:13 am • linkreport

Illinois’ Speaker of the House since 1983 (with a two-year hiatus in the 1990s when Republicans controlled the House), the Democratic representative from District 22 near Chicago’s Midway Airport has accumulated too much power over the years."

His power comes from being speaker, not seniority and having too much power is not the same as undemocratic.

OK, I'm done responding to stuff that's so blatantly false.

OK, take your ball and go home.

by David C on Apr 7, 2011 1:25 am • linkreport

@jack lecou: I think our actual experience with term limited state legislatures (and with Congress in sessions with large numbers of incoming lawmakers) is that something like this is exactly the case. I certainly wouldn't characterize those situations as ones where a great deal of diversity of opinions on major policy issues are entertained.

This seems like a strange comment since we're looking at a House of Representatives that displays exactly that: more difference of opinion than in any in recent history. You've got sharp differences within the Republican Party over the role of government, how to cut spending and by how much, where to compromise and where to fight. I don't have much in common with the people who are trying to take over the Republican Party, but it sure looks like democracy in action, to me.

The fact is, term limits are probably quite useful to exactly the powerful interests I think we are all most concerned about. Or at least they are no hindrance. It is no great matter for those interests to go out and groom some new handsome face to put up for office every couple of terms. All it really means is that those behind the scenes will be the *only* ones with the connections and power, never the empty suit in the legislative seat.

This analysis just seems crazy to me. I don't see how you could possibly think this unless you started out determined to find that term limits are a bad idea, and therefore created some arguments to support that conclusion.

What you describe above certainly isn't what we see in California. We don't have contested general elections, for the most part, but we certainly have contested primaries for the legislature. And we have many, many more of those because of term limits---instead of only getting to vote once a decade in an actual contested state legislative race, a typical California voter gets such an opportunity every few years. So, right away, that means more democracy, as the individual voter has much more influence on what happens in Sacramento.

And it's simply not the case that "the special interests" can select their candidate and just arrange for him or her to win. Partly because there are lots of races and it's not so easy to win them all, it does depend on who the candidates are. And even more so because not all of the special interests have the same candidate. They can't *all* get their candidate elected (e.g., the candidate most strongly backed by organized labor lost the most recent Democratic primary in my district). However, when you have a single legislator who's in office for decades, all of those same interests *can* hire lobbyists and buy influence and establish a "relationship" with that individual that makes them more and more able to get what they want, over time.

by David desJardins on Apr 7, 2011 1:32 am • linkreport

This seems like a strange comment since we're looking at a House of Representatives that displays exactly that: more difference of opinion than in any in recent history.

This is a party wide phenomenon though. The Republican party is undergoing a certain amount of ideological upheaval. The particular new faces in this Congress are a *result* of this upheaval, not a cause of it.

-instead of only getting to vote once a decade in an actual contested state legislative race, a typical California voter gets such an opportunity every few years. So, right away, that means more democracy, as the individual voter has much more influence on what happens in Sacramento.

It means more raw "democracy", I guess. If voting more frequently is some kind of intrinsic good, there are a lot of ways to do that. Most of them are even crazier than term limits though - it seems an odd goal to pursue. (If there's any actual good here, it's more contested races, and I'll concede that term limits probably do encourage that. But they do so by way of a cheap trick - taking the incumbent out of the picture - so the tradeoff is...the incumbent is out of the picture. It's just not clear to me that this is helpful in general.)

As to more influence in Sacramento... Well, that's begging the question, isn't it? Voters certainly get to have somewhat more frequent input into which name is on the office door, but whether this actually means anything depends a great deal on who the newly elected legislator actually listens to. Incumbents also have to listen to constituents, and may arguably be better at it.

And it's simply not the case that "the special interests" can select their candidate and just arrange for him or her to win.

Of course not. Nothing in what I said depends on that. There are obviously sometimes competing interests or cliques, even within the same party. And in any contested race, someone has to lose. That doesn't change the basic point that in the current system genuine "outsider" candidates don't really exist. In the vast majority of cases you simply don't run unless you have or make wealthy and/or influential friends who find you ideologically congenial.

And of course if you win, you will then necessarily *already have* a "relationship" with those individuals, or their friends, and have a predisposition to listen to their lobbyists over others. The relationships you worry about allowing to grow are in fact built-in from the beginning, and I simply see no reason to believe that their influence waxes or wanes in any particular way the longer a lawmaker has been in office. (Or rather, I suppose I see some reasons it might go one way, and other reasons it could go the other, but no reason to believe - and certainly no evidence - that this systematically runs in any particular direction for all or most legislators.)

I'd also like to add that we shouldn't fall into the trap of painting both parties with the same brush. When I write about shady groups readily finding electable and ideologically congenial new faces, I'm thinking primarily of Republicans. I think for one reason and another this process is more difficult for Democrats, who therefore tend to be more disadvantaged by term limits.

by jack lecou on Apr 7, 2011 3:21 am • linkreport

@jack lecou: That doesn't change the basic point that in the current system genuine "outsider" candidates don't really exist. In the vast majority of cases you simply don't run unless you have or make wealthy and/or influential friends who find you ideologically congenial.

This is true in many (not all) state and local races, but it doesn't have anything to do with term limits. Term limits certainly aren't making that more true! They just aren't solving this problem. You can't expect one solution to solve every problem. It's enough that it helps with some of them.

The relationships you worry about allowing to grow are in fact built-in from the beginning, and I simply see no reason to believe that their influence waxes or wanes in any particular way the longer a lawmaker has been in office.

I guess you have to decide whether to believe your lying eyes. If you make even the most rudimentary effort to compare new legislators to those who have been in office for a long time, the conclusion is pretty damn obvious.

When I write about shady groups readily finding electable and ideologically congenial new faces, I'm thinking primarily of Republicans. I think for one reason and another this process is more difficult for Democrats, who therefore tend to be more disadvantaged by term limits.

Wow. I'm a Democrat, but I think this is complete balderdash. If you seriously think the Democratic Party is significantly less controlled by special interests and power brokers than the Republican Party, I think you're wearing serious blinders. And you're fortunate not to have the people I have calling me up and telling me what kind of access they can get me if I let them take credit for my political donations. Or stand in the lobby of the Senate office building sometime, and see the queues of lobbyists lined up. Let me tell you, they sure aren't lining up just for the offices of Republicans.

by David desJardins on Apr 7, 2011 3:34 am • linkreport

P.S. Like I said, some significant fraction of the time the candidate who gets elected in contested elections is the one that many interest groups *opposed*. But once in office, they find ways to develop relationships and influence with those elected officials. It just defies credibility to claim that those relationships of lobbyists and interest groups with elected officials were "built-in from the beginning", even with candidates that they opposed!!

by David desJardins on Apr 7, 2011 3:36 am • linkreport

They just aren't solving this problem.

It was my understanding that this -- candidates beholden to particular interest groups -- was exactly one of the problems term limits purport to solve.

This confusion probably stems from the other disagreements below though.

How so? What exactly should I be looking for?

Wow. I'm a Democrat, but I think this is complete balderdash. If you seriously think the Democratic Party is significantly less controlled by special interests and power brokers than the Republican Party, I think you're wearing serious blinders.

That's not what I said. I said that I believe those interests find it more difficult to readily locate new candidates who are both electable and ideologically congenial. This shallower pool tends to disadvantage Democrats under a term limits regime.

P.S. Like I said, some significant fraction of the time the candidate who gets elected in contested elections is the one that many interest groups *opposed*. But once in office, they find ways to develop relationships and influence with those elected officials. It just defies credibility to claim that those relationships of lobbyists and interest groups with elected officials were "built-in from the beginning", even with candidates that they opposed!!

I never claimed they were.

But on this point, it's unclear to me how this counts as a positive for term limits:

It does not seem to me that it takes very long for this process to occur. Certainly you are naturally going to have - and want - a lot more friends the day after you're sworn in than you ever had on your initial campaign, particularly if you're hoping to run again. Unless you propose kicking people out after a term or less, I don't see that it's making much difference when considered over the course of an average legislator's career (however brief or long).

And to the extent that a more seasoned legislator is able to reach out (or be won over), and broaden both their base of support and areas of interest, I'm not certain I see how that is automatically a net negative. It may well be a positive - A good deal of this process is no doubt simply becoming better educated about issues they may not have previously known or cared about. And it's certainly not automatically true that the new interests are bound to be more vile (they may just as easily be more worthy). Plus, the broadened/diversified base of support may allow a legislator somewhat greater latitude to find their own way (or to pick worthy causes over vile ones).

by jack lecou on Apr 7, 2011 4:13 am • linkreport

Oops, forgot to quote a paragraph:

I guess you have to decide whether to believe your lying eyes. If you make even the most rudimentary effort to compare new legislators to those who have been in office for a long time, the conclusion is pretty damn obvious.

How so? What exactly should I be looking for?

by jack lecou on Apr 7, 2011 4:15 am • linkreport

@jack lecou: It was my understanding that this -- candidates beholden to particular interest groups -- was exactly one of the problems term limits purport to solve.

No, of course not. That's like claiming to solve global warming by turning on an air conditioner. The problem of special interests and undue influence is the single most fundamental problem in our democracy. If anyone seriously thinks we can solve our biggest social problem with one small step like term limits, well, I've never met that person.

Most of the rest of your posting reads to me like rationalization of what you have already decided you want. I don't think there's any point in discussing it further.

by David desJardins on Apr 7, 2011 4:20 am • linkreport

No, of course not. That's like claiming to solve global warming by turning on an air conditioner. The problem of special interests and undue influence is the single most fundamental problem in our democracy. If anyone seriously thinks we can solve our biggest social problem with one small step like term limits, well, I've never met that person.

Ah. I suppose I was confused by all the argumentation around the interests issue. You seemed to be implying that long term incumbents were more susceptible to influence than term limited candidates. Apologies.

I see this from earlier, which I must have skimmed over.

Term limits have two purposes: to reduce the domination of government by long-term incumbents (who in the theoretical world wouldn't have any advantage of incumbency, since the voters would all choose de novo amongst all available candidates), and to rotate people through government thus increasing the diversity of points of view represented (the same reason we have legislators made up of many candidates rather than just electing one person to make all of the laws---term limits are the same thing but with divisions in time rather than space).

If this cuts to the heart of the matter, than in my opinion:

The first goal is highly questionable. I agree about the behavior of voters, but I do not agree that the existence of long term incumbents is a "bad" that must necessarily be corrected - and on the contrary, should sometimes be encouraged. I would support other measures that might increase the likelihood of challengers, including primary challengers, but term limits do too much collateral damage.

The second goal is bordering on nonsensical. There's simply no reason to believe that rotating personnel through faster will result in new points of view rather than simply clones of the old ones, particularly if you've done nothing to change the underlying candidate selection system. Diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints is a worthwhile goal, but simply not one that term limits addresses (and it's not at all clear how *temporal* diversity is exactly desirable in it's own right in any case).

by jack lecou on Apr 7, 2011 4:49 am • linkreport

Term limits are a restriction not on political office holders, but on voters. Limits dictate to voters that they are not allowed to vote for an incumbent, even if they would prefer to do so. Aside from the practicality issues, discussed at length here, term limits are simply undemocratic.

by Jack on Apr 7, 2011 9:46 am • linkreport

When the Republicans were busy using term limits as a rallying cry in the '90s, Henry Hyde took to the House floor to oppose the majority of his party.

"We need leaders," he shouted. "There will be crises. There will be times that cry out for leadership and experience. And if you cast aside your leaders, where will you find new ones? In the telephone book?"

To those who point out the absence of leadership and other admirable qualities among so many Council members, another Hyde quote would seem to apply.

"To have a successful monarchy, all you need is a virtuous king. But to have a successful democracy, you need a virtuous people."

The problems with our elected officials begin with the people who don't demand better - and who therefore elect them in the first place.

(Note: Yeah, I know Hank Hyde was a bit of a windbag. I know that he was a major league hypocrite for leading the impeachment battle while sheepishly discounting his own "zipper problem" as a "youthful indiscretion." But on the issue of term limits, he got it right.)

by Mike S. on Apr 8, 2011 8:59 am • linkreport

@Rich:

The dumbest of all Virginia Senator HAD to be William Scott. He was named dumbest by some Ralph Nader publication, and was stupid enough to call a press conference to deny the charge.

The first question was, "well, if not you, who IS the dumbest?"

He couldn't answer.

Scott was the legendary idiot who interrupted a closed-door Pentagon briefing on Soviet strategic capabilities. The briefer kept pointing to maps and referring to "silos" in various locations.

"Dammit, General," Scott hollered, "I didn't come here to learn about agriculture. I want to know about missiles!"

The WaPo cited multiple sources for the story, which became part of an ever expanding treasure trove of Scott stories.

As for John Warner, I wouldn't mistake his courtly manner and common sense for a lack of gray matter. And you have to admit that any man who could court and marry both Ailsa Mellon and Elizabeth Taylor has to have something going for him!

by Mike S. on Apr 8, 2011 9:11 am • linkreport

"why should the representative of your legislative district have more influence than mine because he's been in office longer??"

He doesn't. If he does, it's because he was elected to have that power by his peers. Is John Dingell the most powerful house member? Is Bill Young speaker? No. So longevity does not = power. Boehner is 55th in seniority. Kevin McCarthy, the house whip is 282nd.

As David pointed out, this is a misconception a lot of folks have. There's nothing about "the system" that confers seniority. It's essentially a caucus tradition. It's also a tradition the House republicans have eliminated (wisely in my opinion). Eliminating seniority makes for a more ideologically coherent caucus, and in the winner-take-all environment we have now, allows them to more effectively pass legislation, which is what it's all about.

Bottom line is, as others have suggested, "term limits" is something like an article of faith among a certain subset (e.g. "2+2=4 or the sky is blue"). But there's no evidence whatsoever that it's effective in eliminating the influence of large cash donations.

The problem with the system is that it's "one dollar, one vote", and that applies equally to freshman legislators as to some dude who's been a Senator since 1960 and inherited the position from dear old dad.

The fact that most "term limits" types either ignored, or cheered lustily the passage of "Citizens United" tells you all you need to know about their seriousness on this issue.

by oboe on Apr 8, 2011 9:43 am • linkreport

Just to follow up on my previous comment:

http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=F0142F1C-DD0A-BC66-54F691BA86919E7F

by oboe on Apr 8, 2011 9:51 am • linkreport

Oh, one last point, then I'll stop: the advantage of incumbency--and this is a point that often gets missed--is a fundraising advantage. The problem "term limits" is meant to solve is to curtail the advantage of incumbency in elections. You do that by making all funding of elections public, and make media outlets carry campaign ads free as a requirement of using the public broadcast spectrum.

by oboe on Apr 8, 2011 9:55 am • linkreport

Grr.

Senate rules are more like GOP House (i.e. seniority has a greatly reduced role) than Dem caucus rules (i.e. seniority is all).

http://www.opencongress.org/articles/view/1293-Snowe-and-Party-Discipline

Okay, someone stop me before I start posting ads for cheap viagra...

by oboe on Apr 8, 2011 9:59 am • linkreport

@oboe: The problem "term limits" is meant to solve is to curtail the advantage of incumbency in elections. You do that by making all funding of elections public, and make media outlets carry campaign ads free as a requirement of using the public broadcast spectrum.

Why bother with that solution? Why don't you just call up the tooth fairy and have her wave her magic wand?

Arguing that we should only consider "solutions" that are not feasible any time soon is just giving up.

Henry Hyde used his position on the banking committee and relationships with campaign donors to get a position on the board of directors of a savings and loan that later failed due to mismanagement and fraud. Yeah, there's a poster child for the value of veteran legislators.

by David desJardins on Apr 8, 2011 11:41 am • linkreport

Arguing that we should only consider "solutions" that are not feasible any time soon is just giving up.

Sometimes effective solutions are more difficult to implement to implement than ineffective (even counter-productive) ones. It's a bit like saying we should make everyone who works in the financial sector change job titles every six months (or maybe a hat that says, "THIEF"), because effective financial regulations will never pass.

As far as the Hyde example, I think using him as an example is a bit fallacious. Obviously only an incumbent has the opportunity to be accused of influence-peddling. The question is whether freshly minted politicians would be any better. Or, indeed, whether it's better to have influence-peddling than the loss of institutional knowledge.

by oboe on Apr 8, 2011 12:13 pm • linkreport

@oboe: The question is whether freshly minted politicians would be any better.

We don't have to speculate, we can look at the actual experience where we actually have term limits.

The voters don't seem to have much trouble seeing the difference. That's why they keep supporting the idea.

by David desJardins on Apr 8, 2011 12:31 pm • linkreport

@DdJ:

David C wrote:

I'm also not convinced that rotating elected officials in and out of office increases the diversity of opinions. Has California's state legislature had a wider set of opinions because of it's term limits or just a wider set of people with the same opinions.

I'd like an example of where you think term limits have made things better.

And how do you determine what the right limit is? If two terms is good, is one even better? How about annual turn over? Or monthly? What is the right number?

All good questions. There are a lot of things that appeal to voters. Obviously, convincing me isn't a project you want to dedicate all your free time to, but "term limits appeals to some simple majority of voters in certain areas" isn't something I find very compelling.

Lots of voters want a 4000+ mile fence erected to keep out Mexicans. Many think eliminating public funding to NPR is a "good start" to balancing long-term budget shortfalls. A large number want the government out of their Medicare. &tc, &tc...

Hell, I'm with the Founders: if anything, we need the voters *less* involved in the process of Democracy, not more. ;)

by oboe on Apr 8, 2011 1:09 pm • linkreport

The idea of pursuing and ineffective solution because they are feasible as opposed to an effective solution that is "not feasible any time soon" reminds me of an old vaudeville skit.

A guy is on one side of the stage looking down at the ground. Another guy walks up and asks him what he's doing. He says "i'm looking for my wallet" and so the other guy joins him in looking. After a little while the 2nd guy asks "where did you lose it?" and the first says "over there, by the orchestra pit." So the 2nd guy asks angrily "Well then, why are we looking over here!" And the first points up and says "the lighting is better."

by David C on Apr 8, 2011 11:12 pm • linkreport

@David C: The idea of pursuing and ineffective solution because they are feasible as opposed to an effective solution that is "not feasible any time soon" reminds me of an old vaudeville skit.

The idea that term limits are ineffective should remind you most of "a lie".

by David desJardins on Apr 8, 2011 11:38 pm • linkreport

I don't think you've made the case so effectively that to disagree is "a lie". That's pretty harsh. We have different opinions, but that doesn't make me a liar. I asked you several times to show me where they've been effective... and to make your case with facts. You've decided not to do that and instead to nitpick around the edges instead of dealing with the tougher questions. That's your right, but don't call me a liar because you're unwilling to prove your point.

by David C on Apr 8, 2011 11:54 pm • linkreport

It's impossible to prove anything to someone who's not listening and who misrepresents the truth. I'd have a better chance of proving global warming to David Koch.

But it's absolutely clear that term limits are effective at preventing the problems of long tenure in office. Your problem is that you don't care about those problems, so of course you don't like those effects. But that's not at all the same as ineffective. No one would have any interest in them (or any objection to them!) if they were ineffective.

by David desJardins on Apr 9, 2011 12:06 am • linkreport

It's impossible to prove anything to someone who's not listening and who misrepresents the truth.

To be fair, you haven't tried.

But it's absolutely clear that term limits are effective at preventing the problems of long tenure in office.

As proof you offer...

No one would have any interest in them (or any objection to them!) if they were ineffective.

That they're ineffective, with negative side effects, is the heart of my objection. So, my perception of them as ineffective is part of my objection.

by David C on Apr 9, 2011 12:39 am • linkreport

Huh? You want proof that term limits reduce the incidence of politicians with long tenure in office? This is getting absurd.

by David desJardins on Apr 9, 2011 1:24 am • linkreport

No silly, I want proof that term limits help "to break up the culture of corruption and power brokers," that they make the current situation better or that they increase the diversity of opinions in legislative bodies.

by David C on Apr 9, 2011 1:34 am • linkreport

These are good arguments for just letting things be the way they are. There is truth that it takes time to learn any job. Having Lobbyist as trainers is not an option and they should not even exist in our governmental system. One argument back would be a question. Who do you want to run this Country, lobbyist or legislation that Americans voted in? I would rather see a phase in phase out system for elected officials. The criteria would be they would have to work with and train the new legislation during their leaving office in order to get Severance Pay. There could also be a federal penalty tied to not training. We have to take this serious and look at the many solutions for this phase in process. i.e. We elect a new President every 4 to 8 years and have made that work since we became the United States. Think of positive solutions!

by Thomas Contender on Apr 15, 2011 2:30 pm • linkreport

Having Lobbyist as trainers is not an option and they should not even exist in our governmental system.

Lobbying is actually protected by the Constitution. One person's lobbyist is another's advocate. But we do need to make sure they aren't buying influence.

by David C on Apr 15, 2011 2:38 pm • linkreport

@David C: Lobbying is actually protected by the Constitution.

That's nonsense. The Supreme Court can say that corporations are people, that money is speech, that up is down, but that doesn't make it so.

by David desJardins on Apr 15, 2011 2:45 pm • linkreport

Voter education Naturalized citizens must answer 6 out of 10 Civics (History and Government) questions – shouldn't voters do the same? It is a right to vote, but it is a responsibility to be an informed voter.

Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government . . . it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw
off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security. THOMAS JEFFERSON, The Declaration of Independence

We have term limits on our President of the United States but why not on Legislation, lobbyist, chiefs of staff, State Governors, Mayors, and many political appointed individuals?

by Thomas Contender on Apr 15, 2011 2:46 pm • linkreport

@David DesJardins,

Can't you just disagree? Does it have to be "nonsense"? Why so combative?

By the way, first amendment: "Congress shall make no law … abridging … the right of the people peaceably … to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

by David C on Apr 15, 2011 3:15 pm • linkreport

@David C: Can't you just disagree? Does it have to be "nonsense"? Why so combative?

Because your profound misinterpretation of the first amendment is destroying American democracy. It's not some kind of trivial game, the stakes involved and the harm that you're doing are very great.

And, no, the right to petition the government doesn't imply the right to hire armies of paid lobbyists and buy access to government officials. Regardless of whether or not there is "influence peddling".

by David desJardins on Apr 15, 2011 6:50 pm • linkreport

@DdJ:

Your misconception is a common one. I know plenty of moderately-paid folks who work for non-profits who are legally required to register as lobbyists. Whatever you might think of nefarious mustache-twirling armies of lobbyists perverting our government, at the end of the day citizens have the fundamental right to petition their government--and to hire folks who understand the legislative and appropriations process to provide expertise.

by oboe on Apr 15, 2011 10:14 pm • linkreport

@oboe: Your misconception is a common one.

I know a hell of a lot more about it than you do.

by David desJardins on Apr 15, 2011 10:28 pm • linkreport

@DdJ

Actually, destroying American democracy is my wife's job. We divy up the workload in our household. It's more efficient that way. For example, I do the dishes, which I actually find soothing, and not that much of a chore.

I don't know what to say in the face of such a claim on your part. The law can be interpreted many different ways, I suppose. In my defense I'll note that my opinion is the same one held by the Supreme Court(generally considered the final arbiter of such things) in United States v. Harris, Buckley v Valeo, Village of Schaumburg v. Citizens for Better Environment, Mevery v. Grant and Riley v. National Federation of the Blind of North Carolina. Furthermore, as far as I know, no Congress or President has ever claimed otherwise, nor has any state or local legislative body tried to outlaw it - which isn't proof, but does lend some credence to the notion that it's protected. Many reference materials state is as an uncontroversial fact. For example, West's Encyclopedia of American Law states "The practice of lobbying is considered so essential to the proper functioning of the U.S. government that it is specifically protected by the FIRST AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution"

But what do those people know? I'm sure you know a hell of lot more about it than them. Or maybe they're all destroying American democracy too. I'll ask my wife. She may have seen them at the meetings.

I guess all I can say is that reasonable people can disagree.

by David C on Apr 15, 2011 11:14 pm • linkreport

@DdJ:

Given your previous posts on this--which seem like the standard middle-American reflexive anti-government boilerplate--it seems unlikely.

by oboe on Apr 16, 2011 10:58 am • linkreport

I wasn't going to write any more about this---I answered David C's question about why I feel so strongly about this, and that seems like enough---but I just heard a brilliant exposition by Al Gore on exactly this subject, and I can't resist the temptation to share some of it, even though I don't have his rhetorical skills and I doubt I will do anything to persuade anyone. I wish you could hear him, instead.

The American political experiment was founded in an era of democratized communications. The printing press made it possible for common people to communicate and be heard in a way that didn't exist before, and that single fact undermined the existing order. Thomas Paine was not a wealthy or powerful man, but he had powerful ideas, and he lived in a world where one could disseminate those ideas.

Two centuries later, American society is dominated by television. Television is not a democratic medium, it is a plutocratic medium. What the public hears is, overwhelmingly, what those with wealth decide to say. This has dramatically revolutionized the practice of government. Where elected legislators used to be responsive to their constituents, now they are much, much more responsive to the people who can give them the money so that they can be heard, in this new world where speech is money and money is speech.

To assert that the founders of the American republic believed that only those with money should be heard, that I should speak a thousand times louder than oboe because I have a thousand times more money, or that David Koch should speak a hundred thousand times louder because he has a hundred thousand times more money, dramatically misrepresents and misperceives what the founders were trying to do and the context in which they sought to ensure freedom of speech.

One more thing, not inspired by Al Gore but someone else I spoke to recently. He told me about William Brennan, when he was on the Supreme Court. His law clerks would come to him when they were amazed about a decision that was coming down, how could the court possibly make such a decision? He would hold up his open hand, five fingers. It all comes down to, if you have five votes, it doesn't have to make sense, it doesn't have to be right or fair, it just has to get five votes and it's "what the Constitution says". Maybe that is how a judicial system has to work, but we certainly don't have to believe the five justices on the Supreme Court, rather than our own common sense, about what the Constitution actually says and means.

Maybe this is all just the usual ignorance of middle America, speaking through my keyboard. Oh well. (But "anti-government boilerplate"?? Huh??)

by David desJardins on Apr 16, 2011 6:34 pm • linkreport

DdJ, I'm not sure the media has gotten less democratic. Printing presses weren't cheap, and Paine had to find people to pay to have his pamphlets printed. Yellow journalism predates Fox News and the internet allows people to reach many more than they could otherwise. Kos of DailyKos is not a rich man - or wasn't. But I agree that the wealthy have more influence and that that is wrong. What I don't see is how term limits solve that problem, or do so without creating a larger one.

As for the limits of the SC. They're fallible. Dred Scott proved that. But it is quite a stretch to claim when I say something that is widely accepted, and backed up by the SC, that it is "nonsense." The plot of "Lost" was nonsense, and I won't be compared to that.

by David C on Apr 16, 2011 7:28 pm • linkreport

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