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Know your limits

Date: 2016-Dec-04           Author: Barry Shatzman

One of the first actions proposed by President-Elect Donald Trump for when he takes office will be to propose a Constitutional amendment that would impose term limits on all members of Congress.

It's one of the few issues that you'll find agreement on across the entire political spectrum. And it seems reasonable enough. Most members of Congress continually run for reelection, and spend way too much of their time (on our dime) raising money for their next campaign. That leaves them vulnerable to the demands of their biggest campaign donors. Impose term limits - the logic goes - and they'll be free to focus on making good public policy.

The more you follow that logic through, however, the more apparent its flaws become.

Let's start with the obvious. For as many terms as they're allowed to have, they'll still be working on getting reelected. So at best, a representative would have two years unencumbered by a campaign. And then what? The guy who'll be taking his place still needs to campaign. So we'll still have the same problem of allegiances... just with a different guy.

Speaking of allegiances... what accountability does a representative have when he knows he won't face voters in the next election?

Term limits also go hand-in-hand with the perception that public policies are simple. But issues such as health care, taxes, the environment, consumer issues, defense, public health, international relations, etc all have many moving parts. If they're so simple, why don't we understand them better? Mainly because they're not. It takes a lot of time (and a large staff) to build expertise. So we elect people to become experts and then act in our best interests. Forcing someone to leave office after they've developed that expertise seems counterproductive.

A lack of expertise by the representative would shift more policy responsibility to unelected staff members... and to lobbyists. And we'd be throwing out the good with the bad - with no guarantee the replacements would be an improvement.

In the early 2000's, California's legislature passed a bill to create a Single-Payer health care system for its residents. Twice. Both times, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it. Then two things happened. Schwarzenegger was replaced as governor by Jerry Brown - who may have been more receptive to a universal health care bill passed by the legislature. But the bill's author, Sheila Kuehl, was replaced in the State Senate. The reason? Term limits. And no subsequent senator proposed a similar bill.

Disagree with my argument? Still like term limits? Cool. My point isn't that they're all bad. But they're hardly the panacea you might be making them out to be. So at best... the issue is a distraction from the real public policy issues i mentioned up top.

At worst... it's a copout. Because you're letting an automatic system take away your right to choose who represents you. Wanna get rid of a representative who ends up representing the interests of a corporation or some other big donor? Then simply do your part to limit their term the next election.

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