The New York Times published an article yesterday about how term limits in New York City are making candidates spend inordinate amounts of time campaigning. It seems that because they can only keep their positions for two terms, if they want to stay in politics — which many of them do — they always have to be looking for the next position to vie for... and the next, and the next:
As a result, New Yorkers will be asked to go to the polls in two years to elect replacements for the mayor, the public advocate, the comptroller, four of the five borough presidents and 36 of the 51 City Council members.
When the term-limits bill passed, no one was certain of the long-term political consequences. It now seems clear that the law has created a near-permanent state of campaigning, with many officials eyeing their next office soon after they are sworn in to the job they have just won.
This is a perfect example of the principle that everything has unintended consequences, though in this case they should have been anticipated. It's one reason I'm against term limits.
Term limits were added to the US presidency with the 22nd Amendment, ratified in 1951, a response to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's unprecedented (and not to be repeated) election to four terms in office (he died in office during his fourth term). No prior president had served more than two terms, and to those who thought four was excessive, two therefore seemed the right number.
While I'm pleased that our current president isn't allowed to be elected again, the fact is that he wouldn't likely be elected in 2008 anyway — his popularity is way down, and it probably won't recover. And that's what limits terms in practice, and that's what should limit terms. The fact that 30 men before FDR had no more than two terms tells us something. President Roosevelt was popular: he won his first term with 57% of the vote and carried 42 states; he took his second term with 61% and 46 states, his third with 55% and 38 states, and his fourth with 53% and 36 states.
Note the declining popularity after his second term. It's likely that if FDR had lived and had run for a fifth term in 1944, he would have lost to New York Governor Dewey (whom he defeated in 1940, and whom Harry Truman barely defeated in 1944).
Those are the only term limits that make sense. Why should we arbitrarily throw a popular and effective public official out of her job? If she's popular and effective enough to win re-election, she should keep serving until such time as she isn't.
Well, people will say, that might be true for the presidency, but there are senators and congressional representatives who've held onto their seats pretty much forever. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), for instance, has had his senate seat since 1962 — that's 44 years and counting; he's in his eighth term. And West Virginia's Robert Byrd has him beat by a few years, serving since 1959. Congressman John Dingell (D-MI) has held his House seat since 1955, winning 27 elections to do that (28 if you count the special election that seated him at the death of his father).
It's true that incumbents have a real advantage in elections. On the other hand, we often see ineffective officials, or those no longer in touch with their public, voted out of office. That Senator Kennedy, Senator Byrd, Congressman Dingell, and others remain in office attests to their being good at their jobs. They should stay until their constituents want them replaced.
But then to have two-term limits at the local level is silly, requiring local officials to change jobs, move districts, and do other sub-optimal things to maintain employment and service to the public. Perhaps Melinda Katz, profiled in the NY Times article, is far better on the city council than she'll be as comptroller. And yet, she'll be forced to change jobs in a couple of years, for no good reason.
If we're really worried about the advantage that incumbents have, why don't we raise the bar for holding more than two terms? Maybe say that you need more than 50% of the vote for your first two terms, and maybe 55% to stay in office beyond that (or pick a number that works). With that in place, FDR would have been blocked from his third or fourth term (depending upon where, exactly, we put the cutoff), but not arbitrarily.
Of course, this is a half-baked idea, and would result in the election of someone with only 45% of the vote. But perhaps it could be refined to work, and it sure beats term limits!