Politics & Policy

A Real Term Limit

Term limits don’t keep politicians from seeking other political positions.

The main thing wrong with the term-limits movement is the “s” at the end of the word “limit.”

What are advocates of term limits trying to accomplish? If they are trying to keep government from being run by career politicians, whose top priority is getting themselves reelected, then term limits on given jobs fail to do that.

#ad#When someone reaches the limit of how long he can spend as a county supervisor, then it is just a question of finding another political office to run for, such as a member of the state legislature. And when the limit on terms there is reached, it is time to look around for another political job — perhaps as a mayor or a member of Congress.

Instead of always making reelection in an existing political post the top priority in the last term in a given office, with term limits the top priority is doing things that will make it easier to get elected or appointed to the next political post. But in no term is doing what is right for the people likely to be the top priority.

Those who favor term limits are right to try to stop the same old politicians from staying in the same old offices for decades. But having the same career politicians circulating around in the same set of offices, like musical chairs, is not very different.

In either case, we can expect the same short-sighted policies, looking no further than the next election, and the same cynical arts of deception and log-rolling to get reelected at all costs.

There are undoubtedly some high-minded people who go into politics to serve their community or the nation. But, in the corrupting atmosphere of politics, there are too many who “came to do good and stayed to do well” — especially if they stayed too long.

Recently, California senator Dianne Feinstein gave a graphic demonstration of what can happen when you have been in office too long.

During a discussion of Senator Feinstein’s proposed legislation on gun control, Texas’s freshman senator Ted Cruz quietly and politely asked “the senior senator from California” whether she would treat the First Amendment and the Fourth Amendment the same way her gun-control bill was treating the Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to bear arms.

Senator Feinstein never addressed that question. Instead, she became testy and told Senator Cruz how long she had been in Congress and how much she knew. Watching her get up on her high horse to put him in his place, I recalled the words of Cromwell to members of parliament: “You have sat too long for any good that you have been doing lately. . . . In the name of God, go!” 

Those who oppose term limits express fears of having government run by amateurs, rather than by people with long experience in politics. But this country was created by people who were not career politicians, but who put aside their own private careers to serve in office during a critical time.

When President George Washington was told by one of his advisers that an action he planned to take might prevent him from being reelected, he exploded in anger, telling his adviser that he didn’t come here to get reelected.

As for the claim that there would be a loss of experience and expertise if there were no career politicians, much — if not most — of that experience and expertise is in the arts of evasion, effrontery, deceit, and chicanery. None of that serves the interest of the people.

If we want term limits to achieve their goals, we have to make the limit one term, with a long interval prescribed before the same person can hold any government office again. In short, we need to make political careers virtually impossible.

There are many patriotic Americans who would put aside their own private careers to serve in office if the cost to them and their families were not ruinous, and if they had some realistic hope of advancing the interests of the country and its people without being obstructed by career politicians.

Is any of this likely today? No.

But neither the Reagan revolution nor the New Deal under FDR would have seemed likely three years before it happened. The whole point of presenting new ideas is to start a process that can make their realization possible in later years.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. © 2013 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

Thomas Sowell — Thomas Sowell is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author, whose books include Basic Economics. He is currently senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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