Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Term limits: "A lot of churning, little butter"

Seems that the same voices who chanted, "Throw the bums out", a decade ago are now singing a different tune. According to this story from the New York Times, legislative bodies across the country are trying to overturn or at least tweak past legislation on term limits.

In the early 1990's, term limits were all the rage. Taking advantage of voter unhappiness, Republicans made term limits a central national theme in their "Contract with America", and that trickled down to local legislatures. Now, even those who supported term limits in the past are starting to see a serious downside. Such as:

Lack of institutional knowledge: With lawmakers coming and going, usually within two terms, there is no one left who serves as a source of information on what happened in the past and why.

Productivity: Government is a steep learning curve, especially coming from the private sector. By the time a new lawmaker understands the mechanics of the office, it's time to leave. The result is that only small projects get done. Larger, more substantive changes and accomplishments often take years of work, beyond the scope of those hampered by term limits.

Lack of accountability: When officials are in office for only a few years, they are often gone before being held accountable for their actions. As one departing Texas mayor said, "We do a lot of churning here, but we don't produce a lot of butter."

Power in the hands of civil servants: A significant amount of work is then delegated to civil servants who build up their own institutional knowledge and maintain an inordinate amount of power because of the information they possess. Some call them "We Bees" as in "we be here when they're gone." It is a concern to some that the running of a government may be in the hands of, or at least greatly influenced by, those who are not elected by the people.

At this time, there are 37 governors and 15 state legislatures that abide by term limits.

No comments: