A Democrat, John James Conyers, Jr., has served in Congress for just shy of 60 years. Another House Democrat, Charles Rangel, has served for over 45 years. Two Congressional Republicans, Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Representative Don Young of Alaska, have each been in office for 43 years. Senator Patrick Leahy has represented Vermont for 41 years. Between them those five men have held office for 232 years, almost as long as the United States has been a country!
This isn’t just a congressional problem. From the Governor’s mansion to the smallest town boards, every state in the Union is overflowing with long-tenured incumbents. It’s bad for democracy. It invites ossification and the old guard using their position and power to crush new ideas and fresh ways of thinking. It invites corruption: the longer a person serves in office, the more he or she is inclined to think of holding public office, less as a sacred trust but, more as an entitlement. This sounds a bit like an Americanized version of the Divine Right of Kings. This tiresome parade of the powerful holds us back.
Some believe the answer to all this is term limits. I have considered, myself, whether establishing a forced retirement after two or three terms would ensure that no politician on Grand Island gets too comfortable.
But term limits may not be the answer
First, some claim that establishing an across-the-board forced retirement is fundamentally anti-democratic. There are some elected officials who are incredibly effective in their positions, even after many years of service. Term limits deny the voting public the right to choose those representatives.
Second, term limits tend to spread the contagion of bad politicians. The incumbent’s chief weapon is name recognition: the reason it’s so tough to unseat an incumbent is that he or she enjoys a high profile. How many times have you seen a politician get term limited out of one office, only to run for election to another, usually higher office? And how many times do those people get elected, just because people recognize their names? Term limits may not give us the best possible political leaders; but instead may give us the same mediocre men and woman, endlessly recycled between elected offices.
Thirdly, the biggest attack on term limits is that it offers us an “out” for our own ignorance and lack of patriotism. If we are frustrated with our elected officials, we’ve got no one to blame but ourselves, but we may rely on term limits to oust out them. After all, we’re the ones electing them. Too many often vote in ignorance of the issues. Or they vote for just the people whose names they recognize, with no thought to their merits as leaders. Worst of all, most of us don’t vote at all!
Term limits are an attempt to protect us from ourselves. Thomas Jefferson writes, “wherever the people are well-informed they can be trusted with their own government.” If we are so poorly-informed that we can’t be trusted to “vote the scoundrels out,” we’ve got problems that all the term limits in the world can’t fix.
The lesser of two evils?
I still think term limits may be worth a look, because even if these three points are correct, the fact remains that we may have no other option to oust long entrenched leaders and bring fresh faces into the political process. More and more, towns across America are using term limits as a last resort to protect against career politicians. Notably, Amherst recently passed a law limiting service in a legislative position to two terms.
So please allow me to return to my question. Should the new town board seek to pass a law forcing those who try and entrench themselves at Town Hall out? I need your input. After I collect your thoughts, I will make a decision whether to pursue this or not. I am inclined to do so, but before I do I want to make sure that I understand better the will of the people of Grand Island. And whether we seek to set term limits or not, I sincerely hope that the citizens of Grand Island take a more active role in town politics.
What you can do right now
First, we have to educate ourselves. Attend town meetings. Know the issues. Talk to your elected officials. Town hall belongs to you. The people who work there are your employees. Find out what they’re doing. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Get involved! Democracy cannot exist where the voters are lazy, disinterested, and uninformed.
Second, (although it is a less of a problem at the town level) in my opinion, we need to clamp down on this excessive campaign spending. For example, the cost of running for president in 2016 will approach $1 billion per major party candidate this year. Congressional races routinely costs in the millions. This is obscene. The high costs mean candidates are endlessly fundraising (instead of doing their jobs), and all that fundraising means making promises to powerful people who don’t always have public interests at heart. Speak out against Citizens United!
Thirdly, we have to be willing to serve. Businessmen and lawyers (like me) have a place in government, but line workers, carpenters, and history teachers do, too! If you feel passionate about making a change in your community, roll up your sleeves and get to work. You want to keep the rascals out of office? Run for office yourself! The lifeblood of Democracy is not restrictive rules; it’s the constant infusion of fresh ideas and new life.
Fourth, and if you do nothing else please do this, please weigh in on this complicated issue. We need your input to make an informed decision. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 716-773-9600 x 616 or stop me in the grocery store and tell me what you think.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this subject.
With sincere regards,