A Heavy Hitter Joins the Term-Limits Team
By David S. Broder
Closer to home, eminent pundit George F. Will has publicly proclaimed a change of heart and is paddling furiously in newspaper columns, TV commentaries and a forthcoming book to get out in front of this wave of anti-politician anger.
It is a tidal wave. Fed by the fury at the Senate's late-night pay raise, the House check-bouncing scandal and even the gruesome Clarence Thomas hearings, the term-limits movement is running even more strongly than it did in 1990, when California, Colorado and Oklahoma passed their initiatives.
One dike burst last week when six of the seven California Supreme Court justices ruled that the initiative barring anyone with eight years service in Sacramento from ever returning is a "reasonable" protection against an "entrenched, dynastic" legislature.
Another barrier will likely fall in Washington state on Nov. 5. Polls show a big majority of voters favoring term-limits Initiative 553. Unlike the three states that passed term limits last year, Washington would count past service against the limit. That would bar popular Gov. Booth Gardner (D) from seeking a third term next year and force the retirement in 1994 of Speaker of the House Thomas S. Foley (D) and every other member of Washington's influential congressional delegation. Foley says that state limits on federal tenure are "flat-out unconstitutional," but that question has yet to be litigated.
The Washington state initiative pits a bipartisan business-labor-civic establishment coalition against an amazing alliance of left-wing activists and right-wing contributors -- a marriage of political convenience worthy of further examination. But for now, let's focus on George Will's arguments, for in him the term-limits movement has acquired its most gifted and influential advocate.
The author of "Men at Work," a book celebrating the skills of professional baseball, has concluded that in the presumably simpler game of government, we suffer from a surplus of "experienced professionals." Were there fewer people thinking about reelection, Will says, government would spend less. Deficits would disappear. That would be wonderful -- if it were true. But as Will himself has persistently and correctly argued, much of the blame for the runaway deficits of the '80s attaches to Ronald Reagan, a term-limited chief executive whose budget proposals added trillions to the national debt.
No one knows whether term limits would induce tighter budgets -- or what else they might do, except change the cast of characters in government. I suspect that a rapid turnover in Congress and the legislatures would shift power to the executive branch of national and state governments and to unelected bureaucrats and legislative staff members. But I may be wrong.
Inside Congress, I believe, term limits would likely weaken the influence and protection small states gain through seniority. Washington state would obviously lose clout if Foley were forced to retire. That example is not unique. Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) argues that if term limits were applied, a few big-state delegations would divvy up the leadership slots and "states like mine would never see a committee chairmanship again." That is plausible -- but it may be wrong.
All this suggests that the unintended consequences of term limits need much more examination than they have received in the current climate of anti-politician fervor. Conservatives, of all people, should be cautious about promoting such fundamental change without looking at the consequences.
But two things are clear. One inevitable result of term limits will be to cut short the careers of talented elected officials who retain the confidence of their constituents and have years of capable service still to give. No serious advocate -- including George Will -- denies that stark fact.
Another consequence has not been seriously weighed in the debate -- the effect on citizenship. The republican form of government rests on a compact between citizens and their chosen leaders. Those officials owe the public a defense of their stewardship if they wish to remain in office. But citizens have a reciprocal duty to hold them to account.
The Founders believed that elections were the proper device for the discharge of these mutual responsibilities. But by introducing an alternative, effortless and indiscriminate way of changing officeholders, term limits not only kill an incentive for officials to serve well. They also tell citizens they can have the benefits of democracy without any exercise of vigilance over their elected officials.
Term limits promise an effortless republic -- democracy without active citizenship. That promise is dangerously false.
Let me offer an analogy George Will should understand: Term limits are like telling the home-plate umpire he need no longer call balls and strikes; he only has to count the pitches and when the total reaches 20, the inning is over.
It's a way to wreck the game.
© Copyright 1991 The Washington Post Company