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Mass. Voters Should Choose Term Limits

Guest Column by Vernon Imrich

The debate over term limits for political office holders has been quietly but persistently raging across this country. This November, Massachusetts could become the 15th state to join the movement if the voters approve ballot Question Four. For the scores of MIT's locally registered student voters, this election will be the first chance to voice your opinions on this issue.

Unfortunately, the term limits debate has been largely portrayed as anti-incumbency emotionalism fighting against the desperate attacks of career politicians. The result has been the depiction of term limits as a knee-jerk, overly simplistic reform without much foundation. A more dispassionate analysis of the idea, however, reveals it to be a necessary, timely, and entirely reasonable reform, based on nothing more than the idea of "balance of power" upon which our government rests.

The framers of the Constitution knew that elections alone were not enough of a check on any system of representational governance. They broke up the federal government into three branches, each with the power to check the other, even making one immune to direct elections. From that moment on, the idea that our right to vote should be procedurally unlimited was thrown out the window. Our vote was limited to that of one U.S. representative, two senators, and one president each. Still not satisfied with these protections against abuse, Congress quickly amended the Constitution with the Bill of Rights. Those amendments said that even the majority could not vote for certain things. We could not vote to limit speech or the press or the right to jury trials, to name a few.

The Constitution sets out exactly what we can and cannot vote for because voting is an exercise of political power. In a democracy, that power is conferred to the people. The voters are just as likely to abuse this power as those they vote for. Without a commitment to basic rights, due process, and procedural balance, democracy would be nothing more than mob rule. Term limits rectifies one such procedural imbalance that, until recently, was not of great importance: the power of incumbency.

It has long been the case that incumbent legislators had more control over the legislative process than newer members. This was and is entirely appropriate. Senior members have a better understanding of the process, have more experience, and are better suited to guide what, due to time, must be a limited debate. Rarely though did these powers confer any special benefits on the districts a legislator represented. The federal budget was roughly a quarter of its current size relative to the economy, and was almost entirely spent on national defense. For that reason, original proposals to limit terms were deemed unnecessary.

With the advent of an aggressively regulatory and service-based government, begun primarily with the New Deal in the '30s, an avenue for imbalance was created that has never been corrected. Incumbent legislators were no longer mere representatives of constituent ideology, but were now deliverers of tangible services, subsidies, mandates, regulations, and patronage positions. This new, or at least greatly magnified, power to deliver services resulted in a magnification of the power of incumbency, and particularly, the imbalance of that power. A legislator with more control of the process could bring home a larger share of the new federal pie. Now the officer was judged not only by ideology but on positioning in the federal power structure. This change is easily documented. From 1790 to 1932, the turnover rate in the U.S. House averaged 41 percent, since 1932 the average has been cut by more than half to 17 percent. Between 1810 and 1950, only four times did the incumbents' rate of reelection exceed 90 percent, since 1950, only four times has it fallen below 90 percent and never has it fallen below 86.6 percent. In that same period, however, displeasure with government has consistently risen.

The voters are clearly caught in a trap. Angry voters can vote for the challenger and get their ideas better represented, but the challenger will have no power to enact them when elected to a sea of powerful incumbents. Pragmatic voters can vote for the incumbent, who has the power to protect their district and may even represent their views, but must then face the same type of politician from every other district. A teaching hospital in Massachusetts may hate Sen. Ted Kennedy's plan for universal health care, but knows he will at least work to exempt them from damage if elected. A farmer in Kansas may dislike Sen. Bob Dole's spending cuts, but knows that at least the farm subsidies will remain intact with Dole to protect them. When both succeed, budgets soar and there is no way for either district to unilaterally stop the escalation.

Term limits is that solution. It is a way for the voters of Kansas and Massachusetts to both give up their positions of power equally. At the state level it is a way for Somerville to balance its power with South Boston. It restores balance to the process by ensuring that procedural advantages are short-lived. Voters need not worry about a politician's position in the power structure, only his or her position on the issues.

Some suggest that we only need to enact some sort of rules reform rather than blanket limitation on terms of office. The problem is, there's not just one or two simple rules to address. There are seniority rules, closed rules, parliamentary powers, committee assignments, simply deciding what committees to create, franking privileges, personal contacts, and districting to name a few. The Voting Rights Act was amended in 1982 to correct the last issue alone and only regarding racial preference and is still in court at all levels over 10 years later.

Others call instead for campaign finance reform. While it may very well also be needed, it can only address certain campaign problems (most notably the system of institutionalized bribery), not incumbency. The voters are not re-electing incumbents because they have more money than challengers. The voters are doing it to save themselves their precious political position. Only in the most extreme cases will the need for change outweigh the ability of the incumbent to protect and service his constituency. In election terms its called loss of clout.

Of course, the common problem with any of these other solutions is that no incumbent stands to gain by any such reform, while the power to enact the reform is vested entirely in those incumbents. Then, even supposing we could get them to stop political jockeying somehow and pass some of these reforms, how could we correct all the intangible imbalances like personal contacts and "party clout." Incumbency inherently grants some districts or states more say than others in the political process. It is precisely due to that imbalance of power that none of these reforms can be achieved.

A few argue that term limits has bad side effects. It could create both a Congress full of lame ducks and a Congress of more easily manipulated newcomers. The first has, in fact, often proved to be a benefit. Legislators can concentrate on the issues and their beliefs, without constantly worrying about getting re-elected and the necessary spin control. Furthermore, as presidential politics has shown, lame duck office-holders are always reluctant to ruin their party's chances to elect a successor in the next election. The second problem, political newcomers, is countered in many ways by the first. Manipulations by lobbyists will be less important as the legislator will not have to worry about preserving a political career through satisfying special interests. The loss of experience will be countered by elected officials being more in touch with the private sector they only recently left and to which they will soon return.

Term limits is universal, impervious to partisan wrangling, leaves little room for judicial interpretation, and can be applied directly by the voters and states. It is the only reform that addresses the chronic problems with our political system. There are costs of course. We will loose some of the good representatives with the bad. But there were costs to efficiency in splitting the government into separate branches. There were costs to home rule and community standards by adopting a Bill of Rights.

In every case the benefits have been worth the costs. The instances of abuse, imbalance, and corruption in our current system are too numerous to mention. It is now an inescapable fact that the legislative process is out of control, no matter who we elect. In that sense, voting for term limits may be the most important vote you could ever cast.