A decade after communities around the country adopted term limits to force entrenched politicians from office, at least two dozen local governments are suffering from a case of buyer’s remorse, with legislative bodies from New York City to Tacoma, Wash., trying to overturn or tweak the laws.
The campaigns against term limits, should they succeed, would drastically change the process by which millions of Americans elect a variety of their leaders — and how much power those leaders can amass once in office.
The elected leaders, some of whom supported term limits when they were imposed, argue that the limits severely hamper government and leave the officials little time to figure out the mechanics of their office. That forces them to gravitate toward small-bore projects that can be done quickly, rather than anything visionary that would take years to achieve.
In what could be called the second-term itch, they are pushing to revise the laws so they can serve another term (New York City and Rowlett, Tex.) or to repeal them so they can seek re-election indefinitely (State College, Pa., and Daytona Beach Shores, Fla.).
“It has been an unmitigated disaster for the city,” said Phil Hardberger, the departing mayor of San Antonio, who supports a November referendum to lengthen term limits to four two-year terms from two.
“The learning curve of how city government works and how to get things done is steep, but when you keep putting people in, and throwing them out, there is very little accountability,” he added. “We do a lot of churning here, but we don’t produce a lot of butter.”
Terms limits are popular politically in some areas because they seem to be a way to deal with the problems of entrenched, disconnected and corrupt politicians. And politicians like to run on term limits, or with promises not to be re-elected, because that gives them the appearance of being a man or woman of the people who's not interested in their personal enrichment or success. What many people fail to realize is that being a public official (and not just a politician) is a job like any other, and those who are in that job longest are generally going to be more effective at what they do. This includes job duties like responding to the needs of constituents, or effectively running a large organization. And term limits are inherently un-democratic, as it removes a choice from voters that they might be willing to make, to re-elect someone they think has done a good job for them. Term limits are an inadequate solution regardless. Many politicians revoke their pledges once they're in office, and their supporters let them get away with it. And now, as this article demonstrates, some supporters are beginning to wish they could keep the person they elected that they've found to be doing a good job. If producing public officials who are sympathetic and connected to their voters is the primary concern, then it makes a lot more sense to encourage ways by which citizens can run for and obtain public office, such as increasing salaries for political offices that are so ridiculously low as to preclude anyone who doesn't already have their own money from running from for office. Or, increasing public financing for political campaigns, which will enable everyday people to run and enable everybody to run without selling out to various special interests to get their campaigns funded. Term limits are a simple and attractive solution, but they simply don't work.