Saturday, February 27, 2010

The case against term limits

I get into a number of on-line discussions, most recently about "special interests" getting hold of members of Congress and failing to do "the people's business" in the process. Others' solution? Limiting the number of terms they're in office so that other people will have a chance to serve and break the gridlock in Washington.

I understand that. But, if their goal is to get legislation moving more quickly, term limits are the last thing we need.

We don't live in the early 18th Century, where nearly three-quarter of Americans lived on farms and thus didn't have the wherewithal to take time off if needed to take care of other business. Today, only about a quarter of the population is rural with the rest being urban, suburban or exurban and needing to go to work everyday, generally outside the home. Like it our not, our day requires a political class committed to public service as a career; as such, there's no sense in even running for office if you know in advance that you're going to spend only about a decade there.

And to do that effectively takes time. Leaning the rules; building relationships with other lawmakers, party leaders and lobbyists -- the constitutionally-protected "special interests" that people love to hate -- and responding to constituents' concerns just cannot happen overnight. I wish that those of us who complain about a "do-nothing" Congress would spend a day in a legislator's shoes just to see the pressures he or she has to face consistently.

We also need to remember that our nation comprises, in effect, 435 different regions, often with competing interests. I live in a metropolitan area that, ideologically speaking, is deep, deep blue; however, travel an hour in any direction and you land in territory that is blood red. Term limits won't change that -- if anything, things would get worse because lawmakers will be dealing consistently with people they simply don't know or understand.

I occasionally read stuff on the wire about the highly dysfunctional legislature in California, specifically when it comes to passing budgets. What I didn't know until this week was that it had instituted term limits for legislators -- and, as a result, government often grinds to a halt because only the lobbyists know what's really going on.

That's a sign to me what would happen if term limits were instituted in Congress.

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