I speak of term limits, which do have a history in this town, albeit brief.
In 1994, amid a national push for term limits at all levels of government, District voters, via a ballot measure, approved a two-term limit on the mayor, D.C. Council members and members of the then-extant school board. It wasn’t close: 62 percent of voters said yes.
Those of us familiar with the current makeup of the D.C. Council, with four of its 13 members in their third terms or better, know that at some point the will of the voters was thwarted. That happened in 2001, when the council voted 9 to 4, over much public outcry, to reverse the measure. The arguments presented by council members at the time went something like this: “They’re undemocratic; they take away from the voters their ability to choose their elected officials,” said Jack Evans (D), then, as now, representing Ward 2.
It’s a fine point; every four years, D.C. voters get to pass judgment on their leaders, and they have shown little hesitation in tossing out incumbents. Ask Harold Brazil, Jim Nathanson, Frank Smith, Kevin Chavous or Adrian Fenty.
But even those otherwise wary of term limits might consider making an exception for the District. The city’s current political unease is run through with symptoms of a diseased culture, where allegations of campaign payoffs and taxpayer-financed luxury SUVs and unreported bribe attempts and misappropriated public funds all fit into an unusually dim conception of politics as usual.
That culture is in part a product of the city’s political infrastructure. For a city of 600,000, we have five citywide offices with actual power (soon to be six), eight ward council members, plus a largely advisory State Board of Education. Add 37 advisory neighborhood commissions to that, and it’s still a relatively bare landscape compared with cities that elect judges and surveyors and assessors and county commissioners and state delegates, and, yes, members of Congress.
“We have an artificially stagnated political system,” said Sekou Biddle, who served on the education board and ran unsuccessfully in the special election earlier this year for an at-large council seat. Term limits, he says, offer “a greater opportunity to refresh the talent pool and also the ideas and perspectives that are brought into elected office.”
Call it a less gory version of that old Thomas Jefferson adage about “watering the tree of liberty” with the blood of tyrants. The shrub of District democracy might well be nourished by the abbreviated tenures of city politicos.
I consulted several D.C. Council members who have leading roles in undertaking good-government reforms — Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) — and they raised various objections, as you might expect.
“Asking the politicians is the last thing I would do,” said Philip Blumel, president of U.S. Term Limits, the national lobby group that backed the original D.C. ballot initiative.
Blumel’s group pushed for a string of high-profile ballot initiatives in the early 1990s, seeking to term-limit members of Congress, state by state. But after the Supreme Court ruled against that approach in 1995, Term Limits USA has continued to campaign at the lower levels of government, where Blumel says term limits can do greater good.
“Corruption is a function of arrogance and of opportunity, and both of these are highly correlated with tenure,” Blumel said, who added that term limits also lead to more ex-politicians and more aspiring politicians, which are essential to a healthy political culture. Former officeholders, he notes, “know where the skeletons are hidden, they know how the deals are made. . . . When you have an entrenched incumbency, all the special knowledge about government is locked up in an elite.”
But most of all, term limits could lead to a new blossoming of community leadership in a city whose current politicos have little incentive to encourage neighborhood activists who could well become potential rivals. And those activists often see little reason to step out on their own.
“Goal-oriented ambitious people rarely run against incumbent politicians,” Blumel said. “The wisest people are wise enough to know not to run against an incumbent.”