Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Few Words on Term Limits

According to Politico, with the passing of Sen. Kennedy, the state of Massachusetts will have its first opening in the Senate since John Kerry was elected in 1984. Which means that throughout the course of my life I have literally never seen anyone but Kennedy and Kerry representing the state of Massachusetts in the US Senate.

The question is whether or not this is a good or a bad thing for our country. Do the people have a right as President Reagan always said to "vote for someone as often as they want to do."
Or should we be placing into law restrictions on the number of terms someone can serve to fulfill the wishes of Thomas Jefferson and are term limits our nations modern way of ensuring that "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time."

Term limits began in 1951 with the passage of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, limiting the number of terms a President can serve to two. Since then 21 states, beginning with California, Colorado and Oklahoma in 1990, have enacted term limits legislation on their State Legislative bodies and executive branches of government. And further down in elected bodies, across this country we have term limits on city Council seats, school board seats, public service commissions and just about every elected body of government out there.

Now as a disclaimer, as someone who makes a living based on the frequency, not the infrequency of elections, it is better for the political consultants out there to hold elections as often as legally possible. And the best way to have contested open primaries and open general elections is of course through term limits. A great example of this is the State of Louisiana. In 2007 their term limit legislation went into effect and of the 105 seats in the state house 67 of these seats were open in 2007. And across the state you had 5 or 10 candidates vying for a seat they would never have had an opportunity to hold before term limits (based on skill, qualifications or resources). And now every 12 years in Louisiana far more than half the state house and state senate will be up for election in what will be open seats with good and bad politicians forced into retirement.

In my experience term limits are a double-edged sword. The power of incumbency can protect seemingly horrendous politicians from the hands of electoral defeat where no term limits exists, but on the other side great statesmen and thoughtful political stalwarts get replaced by inexperience and opportunistic pols with little idea of what they are getting into when term limits force the good guy out of office early.

For all its worth Massachusetts have had the opportunity to replace both Ted Kennedy and John Kerry in my lifetime. Once in 1994 when Ted Kennedy ran in a heated general election against future Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Truth be told since 1962 I would put money on the fact that Ted Kennedy has most likely represented the State of Massachusetts exactly how they wanted to be represented. And if a representative is not doing to right thing the people generally do a good job of voting them out of office.

Another Louisiana example: It may have taken an election or two longer than it would have elsewhere, but in the end "Dollar" Bill Jefferson (D-New Orleans) was voted out of office by his constituents after being indicted on 16 counts of federal crimes. And to some it may be laughable he held the seat in the first place, but he had one of the most powerful political machines that power, money and corruption could buy and in a city more than 70% African-American and more than 80% democrat a Vietnamese Republican named Joe Cao beat him in 2008.

So for me I take Ronald Reagan's side in this debate. Let the people decide. Vote for someone as much as you want. Term limits should not be preventing genuinely great politicians from representing us based on some random number, thats the decision given to the voting electorate by our Constitution.

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