The next earthquake in California will probably be a political one. Proposals to limit the time politicians hold office are on the November ballot, and likely to pass. A measure to throw the rascals out just passed in Oklahoma, and others are under consideration in Colorado, Missouri and elsewhere. There is even talk of a constitutional amendment that would, in the name of good government, sweep from office the likes of Sam Nunn, Bill Bradley and Pete Domenici.
Thanks, but I'd rather keep those rascals in. Few proposals seem less likely to produce good government.
Limiting tenure limits the expertise and experience of those facing the complex and subtle problems of government. This is not just because less time passes while a politician holds office. Because his time is limited, he has less reason to spend time understanding policy issues. Though it may seem those clowns don't have expertise anyway, think what the military might look like without a Sam Nunn or Barry Goldwater to keep tabs on it. Power inevitably will be transferred to bureaucrats and lobbyists around long before and long after the brief life span of the legislator.
Officeholders can spend time saved not thinking about their present job by thinking about the next. They'd only be sensible to consider the opportunities they'll have when their short time in government is over. While some might trust to the fates, others will take more direct action to ensure their futures. Incumbents will not only be less able; they'll be more corrupt.
Weak incumbents invite weak challengers. It takes less to beat them. Possible candidates with attractive private careers are less likely to disrupt those careers to participate briefly in government. The field will offer unusual opportunities to the undesirable. Fringe candidates like David Duke might well be attracted to such opportunities.
Imagine, then, a contest between two poor candidates, each with a weak grasp of issues and little record. The result seems sure to be ever more vicious and irrelevant campaigns and a premium on image and innuendo, cheapening an already degraded electoral process.
And once these brave new legislators get into office, they'll have just a few short years to make their mark. Better get busy. No climbing the ladder of leadership for them: pull out all the stops to get your program, or just to get attention. If they're all short-timers, there will be no leaders to corral the disruptive, teach the unwashed, or frame balanced policies. If you think Congress is chaotic now, just wait.
It's hard to see why we'd want these measures. The idea seems to be that term limits will make politicians more responsive to the voters. But a lame-duck incumbent, without hope of reelection and immune to the voters' wrath, can pursue his own agenda. The term-limited legislature will contain a large number of members in their last terms contemplating retirement. That government would be less -- not more -- responsive.
Incumbents do win with almost disgusting regularity. That's not completely strange: people win the first time because they have some appeal for the voters, a characteristic not all challengers share. But they also have some powerful advantages, due largely to the bizarre system of campaign finance created after the Watergate scandal. That's a system ripe for reform.
But the dramatic unintended results of the Watergate reforms tell us it's not easy to improve the electoral process. Term limits have a lot in common with Mr. Bush's "read my lips" tax pledge: lots of quick fix and sex appeal, not much attention to unpleasant details. Simple answers aren't always so simple.
The citizen-legislator has almost a mythic appeal as a Mr. Smith who'd go to Washington and give voice to the plain common sense of the people. Mr. Smith, of course, was a Hollywood creation, designed to appeal to our vanity. It's comfortable to think we'd have good government if only those politicians would listen to us. But the budget mess arose because they were already trying too hard to give us what we wanted. We have met the enemy and, as usual, it is us.
What term limitation advocates have in common is the belief that Congress fouled things up. They want to stick it to politicians who didn't do what they should have. But what should the politicians do? Agreement on that little issue will be no greater after term limitation than before.
To quote Jack Gargan, a leader of the term limitation movement, "we can't do any worse" than the current incumbents. Oh, yes we can. Just wait and see.
The writer is an assistant professor of law at Catholic University.