In 1990, beginning with California, Colorado, and Oklahoma, many states embarked on term-limit movements that resulted in the adoption of term limits for state legislatures. This was done in response to what many believed was widespread legislative tenure becoming standard with representatives securing lifelong careers in politics. Throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s eighteen more states would pass term limit legislation through the initiative process resulting in the restriction of the number of terms that elected representatives may serve in office (Bowman 161). Although such legislation would be repealed in 6 of those states, either by the courts or the legislature, rarely have such measures been supported by so many American voters. While few issues in politics have the potential to change the political landscape as dramatically as term limits are they good for the country? Despite some advantages to term limits they are, and I believe always have been, a bad idea. By having term limits, we effectively remove from consideration those very people who have wisdom and experience in the political arena.
Supporters of term limit legislation often point to our founding fathers and their belief that there should be limits to legislative tenure. Supporters quote Continental Congress member Thomas Jefferson who in 1776 warned of the dangers if representatives remained in office too long and suggested a proposed limit to congressional tenure. Jefferson stated ‘to prevent every danger which might arise to American freedom by continuing too long in office the members of the Continental Congress’ shall not have served in that office longer than two years’ (Jefferson). I have identified three main pros that term limit supporters rely on to defend their position, yet they tend to overlook the cons that occur with term limits in place.
1. Legislative term limits help to keep corruption out of government and prevent any one person from consolidating too much power. Being a member of the legislature is a powerful position. It is believed by supporters of term limits that those who remain in power over long periods of time are tend to resort to serving their own self-interest, as opposed to looking out for the voters. Terms limits it is believed will minimize the influence that special interest groups and money play on politics by decreasing the significance of each. Special interest groups and lobbyists’ influence will therefore decrease as officeholders will not be forced to rely on large fundraisers and special interest money. Term limits will effectively lead to a more responsive and varied legislature and keep those who desire power and money out.
Unfortunately money will always matter as long as members of the legislator serve more than one term. Special interest groups and lobbyists play a very critical role in our democratic system. Such groups still represent millions of voters’ views and interests before the various legislative bodies. They lobby for such views in an organized and effective manner that assures that the voices of many different people and organizations are heard. Without these lobbyists and experienced legislators items such as public works projects and legislative bills will stall out before any benefits are seen.
2. Term limit supporters stress that term limits will dramatically increase turnover in legislative bodies. Serving as a member of the legislature is not supposed to be what one chooses as their choice of career. Those who choose to serve as legislators are supposed to do because of moral reasons. Not as a means to make money and ensure that they are employed for eternity. Newcomers to politics will inject fresh blood and new ideas into our democratic system. A system which, supports of term limits argue, is currently stagnant with politicians that have spent more than half of their lives in politics and who are rarely challenged in elections. The people would be better served by eliminating professional career politicians and opening up the legislator to a regular citizen-legislators.
New people in any organization are highly reliant on the people around them. Dangerous consequences of the forced loss of valuable experienced legislators just when they are becoming most effective could occur if term limits are passed. The business of state and federal government has grown increasingly complex. Term limitations throw away the benefits of learning from experience. Inexperienced legislators are less powerful in relation to legislative staff, executive branch bureaucrats and special interest group lobbyists from who they must learn the customs and routines of legislative operations.
3. The legislature can thrive only when newly elected candidates bring fresh ideas. When the same legislators serve for year after year, this can lead to unproductivity and a lack of fresh decision making. A government body works best when new people are allowed to infuse new ideas and come up with plans that don’t already exist.
In fact ‘term limits have failed the public’s goal of bringing in more citizen legislators’ (Smith, Greenblatt, and Vaughn 266). Expertise and experience in government has become proportionately more valuable and can be better that a fresh perspective. In addition, term limits may prevent the best person for the job from being elected. Voters who believe extended incumbency undermines our democratic system free to vote against their particular incumbents. Denying other voters the right to choose a particular candidate whom they have chosen many times before is inherently unjust. Our system of representative democracy rests on citizens choosing the legislatures that they believe are the best choose despite how many years that they have served in office.
The push for term limits by supporters is simple. When a legislator has been in office for some time they gather too much power, become corrupt, and do not serve in the public interest. Therefore the current legislators need to be replaced in order to restore representation to the voters. Term limits would automatically allow this to occur after a fixed number of terms. And in fact term limits are supported by voters and ‘polls suggest that about 75 percent of the public favors them’ (Smith, Greenblatt, and Vaughn 266). But is this because the average voter is not informed of the issues and the legislators that they vote for or against? Nobody is forcing voters to re-elect the current officeholders, and it would be wrong to force them to reject these legislators. If we want to replace legislators there is only one right way to do it. We must have informed and responsible voters. Term limits will not ensure the election of caring legislators because they improve neither the quality of those who seek office, nor the way that voters think about the legislators. By having term limits we would only end up eliminating the people who have the wisdom and the experience to lead us.
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