61: End of term
Limits on tenure of elected office
The problem: too long a life
The comedian Will Rogers once observed that once a man's held elected office, he's no good for regular work. But is that because people tend to hold elected office for too long?
Politicians who are returned election after election often lose touch with their real constituents. Their power grows as their source of funding and their electioneering armies expand. Able people are put off from standing because they cannot take on this political professionalism. Presidents can grow their own army of staff and supporters until they effectively become monarchs.
The idea: limit their life
One solution is to limit the number of times that a person can be elected to the same office. Then, politicians cannot accumulate too much power; able people are willing to stand because they know their tenure will be short and they can resume a career subsequently; and politicians are not in office long enough to lose touch with the people who elected them.
Example: Roosevelt was enough
The Constitution of the United States was amended after Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President four times. Although generally reckoned to be a good President and an impressive war leader, Americans could see the dangers of future Presidents turning into something like elected monarchs. So now the rule is that no President can be elected more than twice.
Term limits, which limit the period of time that legislators may serve, were part of America's first governing document, the Articles of Confederation. They were left out of the Constitution after some members fought in 1784 for the right to keep their seats indefinitely. Nonetheless, self-imposed limits were backed by Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, as part of a tradition in which public servants routinely went home after two or three terms. In modern times, however, this tradition has been replaced by congressional careerism.
Today, more than 20 states in the US have passed term limit laws by ballot initiatives. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, struck down term limits on federal legislators, but left standing limits on state legislators.
Most states already have term limits for their governors, and when the Republicans won control of the House and Senate in November 1994, they passed a House rule limiting committee chairmen in the House of Representatives from serving more than six years. Two years later, the Senate enacted the same rule.
The US Constitution limits the power of government and of the men and women who staff the government. Term limits also limit the power of any one person, by limiting the length of time in which power can be wielded by one man or woman.
Some American Congressmen have already voluntarily term-limited themselves to six years in the House of Representatives: those who have done so vote for less government spending than do those who have not limited themselves.
Examples: coming to terms with limits
Other countries have gone further than the United States and have constitutional barriers against public officials holding office more than a set number of times.
Several countries in Southern Africa have two-term presidential term limits, though these are under pressure from incumbents, who have been keen to strip them out of their constitutions, causing a series of political crises in the region. President Frederick Chiluba abandoned his bid for a third term in Zambia only after fatal clashes between police and protesters over the issue.
In neighboring Malawi, church leaders issued stern warnings to President Bakili Muluzi against similar moves to amond the 1994 constitution and run for a third term.
The constitution limits the president of Mozambique to serving two consecutive five-year terms, and Uganda has constitutional term limits too.
But the constitution of Namibia was amended late 1999 to allow President Sam Nujoma to stand for a third term in office. After winning his third presidential campaign, the 73-year-old Nujoma said he was ready to stand for a fourth term in 2005.
Assessment: stop rolling that log
It is clear that, where term limits are enacted, it can be difficult to retain them, such is the determination of leaders to hold on to office.
However, the struggle would certainly seem to be worth the effort. Term limits reduce the incentive for 'log-rolling'. If someone intends to be 20 years in Congress, they might vote, if asked to, for an idiosyncratic spending proposal, hoping for a similar favour in return at some future date. With a six year limit, however, the likelihood of such exchanges of favours is greatly reduced.
Term limited congressmen and state legislators have to plan for a personal future other than that of a professional politician on the government payroll. They have to look forward to years of living under the laws they pass, and paying the taxes they set. In other words, they cease to be 'them' and behave more like 'us'.
Without term limits, incumbents have a huge advantage in elections: this may be true anywhere, but it is particularly true in the United States. Incumbents build up name identification over the years, and accumulate war chests, lists of donors, media contacts, and political skills (and favours owed to them). This makes it difficult for challengers to win.
The most competitive races in the US are for 'open' seats where there is no incumbent. Second to that are incumbents running for their first re-election, before they have built up such a formidable political advantage.
Today, most analysts think that only ten percent of House races are truly competitive. If candidates were limited to serving no more than three terms, for a total of six years in Congress, then at least every third election would be fully competitive.
The longer a Congressman stays in Washington away from his or her home district, the more they take on the dominant Washington culture, and care more about what the Washington Post thinks, than about what their constituents think. Someone who works in Congress for 20-30 years tends to retire to Washington. Those elected for a brief time tend to head back to their home states. Similar patterns are found in other legislatures in other countries around the world.
In other words, term limits keep legislators closer to the people, and less likely to form part of a political establishment. So once a politician has held a term-limited public office, it is just possible that he or she might just be good for regular work.
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Copyright 2002: Adam Smith Institute
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