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Chad Marlow

Confessions of a Term Limits Convert

For years, I vociferously argued against the evil of term limits. I believed that term limits existed in the form of elections, and that term limits would only serve to shift legislative power to unelected staffers. I took comfort in the fact that most progressives and Democrats echoed my sentiments. Well, it turns out I was wrong; we were wrong. As word trickles out that the New York City Council is preparing to overturn two city referendums enacting term limits on City offices, much focus has been properly placed upon the undemocratic nature of their self-interested actions. Unfortunately, this takes the focus off the main issue: Americans, on the whole, seem to be unimpressed with the overall quality of our elected officials, and yet we return them to office year after year at a rate that is stunningly close to 100%.

True, term limits may not be the ideal solution to overcoming the three biggest problems in elective politics: the power of incumbency, the undue influence of money on elections and the ability of mediocre candidates with high name-recognition to consistently beat out exceptional candidates who lack such an advantage. Nevertheless, at least term limits provides a mechanism for periodically turning out under-performing elected officials. If you believe our elected officials are largely comprised of highly talented, innovative thinkers who represent the very best our society has to offer the public sector, you would naturally oppose term limits. I do not.

How tough is it for a qualified candidate to buck the power incumbency? Just look to the City Council's own experience. After serving in the Council for years if not decades, how many former Councilmembers, after sitting out a term as required under the term limits law, chose to run for their old seats, albeit this time against a sitting incumbent? The answer is none, because each knew that what would have been an easy win a few year earlier was now almost certainly a losing cause. Terms limits may be only a bandage solution to a systemic problem, but we should not forsake this temporary patch and allow our government to bleed to death while we await a greater cure.

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Posted at 9:21 AM, Nov 29, 2005 in Democracy
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