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Dispensable Arrogance

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks to reporters in front of a portrait of King George III after an economics roundtable in London this week.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks to reporters in front of a portrait of King George III after an economics roundtable in London this week. (By Kirsty Wigglesworth -- Associated Press)
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By George F. Will
Sunday, October 12, 2008

Unimpressed by Charles de Gaulle's droll observation that the graveyards are full of indispensable men, Michael Bloomberg, New York City's 108th mayor, has decided that he is indispensable. So the law limiting mayors to two terms must be revised to allow three terms.

"It's not that anyone is indispensable," said Bloomberg when announcing that the term-limits law, which was enacted by referendum and then reaffirmed by a second referendum, is an intolerable impediment to his continuing as mayor for another four years in what he calls "tough times." He was referring to Wall Street's troubles, which will shrink the city government's revenue. But the times were always in some ways tough for each of Bloomberg's 107 predecessors.

Advocates of term limits argue neither that political talent is irrelevant nor that it is ubiquitous. Rather, they argue that talent is not so scarce that the benefits of rotation in office must be sacrificed to prolong indefinitely a talented person's tenure. And they argue that the benefits of churning the talent pool exceed the costs of limiting tenures.

Bloomberg's supporters say that term limits are undemocratic -- but also that the City Council should alter the limits (which apply to council members) by statute rather than submit the change to a public referendum. To the charge that term limits are undemocratic, the answer, in Palinspeak, is, "You betcha." That is, they are as undemocratic as, say, the First Amendment, which begins with the most lovely five words in the English language -- "Congress shall make no law." The amendment lists some things that the people's elected representatives cannot do even if the people want them done, such as abridge freedom of speech or legislate the establishment of religion.

Last month, in a front-page story headlined "Across Country, New Challenges to Term Limits," the New York Times, which dislikes term limits as heartily as it likes Bloomberg, reported, without even a soupcon of irony, this:

"A decade after communities around the country adopted term limits to force entrenched politicians from office, at least two dozen local governments are suffering from a case of buyer's remorse, with legislative bodies from New York City to Tacoma, Wash., trying to overturn or tweak the laws."

Good grief. These legislative bodies, including state legislatures, are largely filled with politicians eager to become entrenched. And these bodies never did "buy" term limits. Limits were imposed on them.

The Times reported gravely that term limits force legislators "to gravitate toward small-bore projects that can be done quickly, rather than anything visionary that would take years to achieve." Disregard the dubious idea that "visionary" legislatures are desirable, and disregard the fact that term limits always allow legislators to serve for "years" -- usually at least six and often eight or more. But consider the Times' supposedly alarming example of Tacoma Councilwoman Connie Ladenburg.

Now in her second four-year term, she advocates something that the Times presumably considers visionary and not a bit small-bore -- a $2 million pedestrian and bike trail. Ladenburg lamented to the Times that she thinks "this is crazy" because "If I go away, and it's not completed, what will happen?" Well, either the trail will be completed or it won't. Presumably, if the good people of Tacoma want it, it will be, in which case she will not have been indispensable, which will also be true if they do not want it completed.

The Times dutifully reported that 37 governors, 15 state legislatures and nine of the 10 most populous cities have term limits, which remain popular with the people who imposed them: "Recent ballot initiatives to alter them, including one in California in February, have failed."

Two amusing arguments against term limits are that political novices are too susceptible to the wiles of lobbyists and that term-limited legislators, worrying too much about their next jobs and too little about their current ones, are constantly in campaign mode, thinking of the next election rather than the next generation. The idea that when term limits are absent, these difficulties are absent is refuted by one word: Congress.

"Make no mistake about it," Bloomberg said when announcing his intention to revise the law without seeking the permission of the public that enacted it. "I still think term limits are a good thing." Just not for him, not now, in these "tough times." Yet again, the political class's reaction to term limits is a powerful, indeed sufficient, argument for them.

georgewill@washpost.com


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