Term limits, and term lengths

There’s a film clip circulating on the Internet featuring what is obviously a legislative body in session.

A member is making a speech from the podium while other members can be seen in various frivolous poses, including playing video games on their desktops. It is being used to encourage term limits for Congress.

Only the legislative body pictured is the California Assembly, which has been term-limited for 20 years. It doesn’t work.

One of the great by-products of federalism is the ability it gives states to find out how well certain things will work – or not. States like Arizona having term limits aren’t governed any better than those that don’t.

One problem with term limit proponents is their belief that the Founding Fathers wanted everybody to just serve for a bit and go home. I devoted an entire column recently to listing all the major figures in our nation’s birth, and noting how from Sam Adams to James Monroe they all spent considerable time in various public offices, both appointive and elective, and we should be grateful to them for that.

The short-term service argument is a myth. What matters is the ability and quality of the character of those we choose.

One thing has changed in the last 200 years, and term limit supporters would be wise to notice – and propose remedies – for it. We allowed the terms of office to be lengthened to the degree that too many public officials are far less reachable.

Patrick Henry served seven terms as Governor of Virginia, John Hancock six as Governor of Massachusetts. Those were one-year terms. Most local and state officials had one-year terms well into the 19th Century.

Debates over ratification of the original constitution focused not on term limits but on term length. Many complaints were made about allowing members of the U.S. House to serve for two full years.

The idea of representatives as policy makers as opposed to actual representatives became popular with academics and among the original Progressives towards the end of the 19th Century, when terms of office began to be extended. The argument given was “we don’t want our representatives to be constantly campaigning.”

Translation – we don’t want them going back to the folks who elect them to discover the ideas we’re selling them on really suck. We need to isolate them from their constituents for as long as possible to get all this unpopular crap passed.

Two-year terms for governors and others became common at the beginning of this century, driven by a coalition of policy wonks and politicians who wanted less supervision. That has now been extended almost everywhere to four-year terms. The group of elitists centering around former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is pushing it for legislators.

One unintended consequence of the four-year term in Arizona has been the incredible growth in recalls, particularly in local governments like town councils and school boards where the jurisdictions are still small enough to be handled by citizen rebellion. It would make more sense to simply put the terms back to two years.

It would also make sense to reduce terms for all state and county officials as well as city councils and school boards. One can directly chart the growth of government at all levels to the growth in the length of terms for those who did the growing.

One additional advantage is that off-year and local elections are great message senders to those holding power. Having them twice as often would greatly enhance that communications device and give us less reliance on guys like Rasmussen and Zogby for national trends.

Hear Emil Franzi and Tom Danehy Saturdays 1-4 p.m. on KVOI 1030AM.


  1. kralmajales says

    I agree…term limits are stupid. The best term limits are the ballot box.

    Also, just look at Arizona. Those who are limited just shift from house to senate and senate to house. Just like Harper is going to do.

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