We’ve all heard the cliche that there are “lies, damn lies, and statistics”. Well, in the context of political reform, there are blunders, meshugganah blunders and term limits (I’m quite sure this cliche will soon sweep the nation).
Term limits for elected officials are often sold as some sort of cure-all for all of the myriad flaws in our political system. If we just sweep out the old and bring in “fresh blood” every few years, congress and state legislatures will no longer be gridlocked. They will pass more laws, all of them good and they will be less corrupt, stupid, reactionary or Communist (depending on your ideology) poorly dressed and just plain weird.
Put another way, term limits will force us to elect young, bright, pristine, honest politicians we are lucky to have, who will all, within a few years, turn into crusty, crooked, worthless dingleberries we must get rid of. Every single one of them.
This argument is false. It is nothing more than wishful thinking. Having served in both the House and Senate of a legislature for 18 years, I had occasion to observe hundreds of colleagues. Some, on both sides of the aisle, were brilliant, sincere and insightful. Others were fine. Not stand-outs, but did their jobs and represented their constituents satisfactorily. And of course, there were some who were either dumb as a tub of prunes or so corrupt that I counted myself lucky when they didn’t actually rob me at gun-point right on the senate floor.
The reality is that things like intelligence, diligence, integrity, etc., are character traits, innate to an individual. An honest person comes to the legislature as an honest person, and in my experience, is still an honest person when they leave the legislature, even if that is decades later. Conversely, it won’t take much Googling to find a long list of first or second term lawmakers who have been sent up-river upon conviction of all manner of crimes. There is just no evidence that replacing one legislator with another simply because the incumbent has been in office for a set number of years, will bring us a better legislator. In fact, it seems at least equally likely that we will be trading a very good legislator for a very bad one.
Given that term limits confer no obvious gain, they become difficult to justify when…