Here’s a plan that is sure to improve the quality of your local hospital: Fire all the doctors and nurses with nine to 12 years of experience. Just kick them all out. Or why don’t we fire every Apple software engineer who has been at the company that long? That’ll surely yield better iPhones. Or fire every Post reporter with a decade under his or her belt.
No? Sound crazy? I agree. Those are terrible ideas.
For some reason, though, a lot of folks who would never suggest this do seriously entertain term limits for legislators, which Montgomery County will vote on this November as Question B. It’s a bad idea, and voters should say no.
I know what you’re thinking : “But those politicians, they aren’t fixing the government! They seem to be thinking only of themselves and not me!” But here’s the thing: Some of them are terrible, but some are dedicated public servants who are trying to do good. The ones who have more experience are not more likely to be bad, but they are more likely to know what the heck they’re doing.
I’ve lived in cities with term limits, and I can tell you that it didn’t make the legislative branch of the government more effective. It made it less effective. Some of the legislators were great, to be sure, and some were horrible. Just like the people before them. But they were mostly inexperienced.
This is bad because a big part of a legislature’s job is to oversee the executive branch. A county executive or mayor might have term limits, too, but he or she is supervising armies of civil servants who may have decades of experience. (Again, some are fantastic, some are terrible.) Legislators can and should root out waste and probe for incompetence, but they get much better at this as they get to know the process and the inner workings of the government. Green legislators often simply don’t have the depth to ask the right questions and know how far to keep pushing. They learn.
Likewise, some of The Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters have developed their sources and knowledge over many years of covering their beats. Sure, some young reporters are fantastic, too (and some not so much), but experience brings certain skills, in journalism and in legislating. Plus, the veterans teach the newbies a thing or two.
The second big problem with legislative term limits is how they warp people’s time in office. Remember how I imagined you saying legislators think of themselves and not the voters? Well, if they don’t expect to be coming back to the voters, they really won’t be thinking of them.
Let’s imagine that every doctor knew he or she would have to quit medicine after 12 years. A scant few could move up to manage the hospital (the analogous career path is getting to Congress, which very few legislators can hope for), and the rest would go work for pharmaceutical companies (you can guess the analogy on this one — it’s becoming a lobbyist, which is what a lot of former legislators do).
Would this create greater incentives to care about every patient and find the best plan of care for each case? Or would the doctors instead be thinking about how to land the best pharmaceutical job, perhaps by prescribing those medicines the companies want to sell?
Would reporters have as much incentive to root out the truth about corporate malfeasance if going to a company public relations department were the likely next career move?
Sure, some reporters would do the best digging they can no matter what, some doctors and nurses would go the extra mile for patients just because, and some legislators would do their utmost for the voters regardless. So why would you want to kick them out?
A term-limited legislature is more appealing to people who just want to punch a ticket on the way to a bigger or more lucrative job and less appealing to people who want a career helping the public. In short, it will attract worse candidates, not better ones.
Sure, I know some long-serving Montgomery County Council members I’d like to get rid of. But there are some whose loss would be a big blow. And among the new ones, it’s the same: Some I wish had not won their seats, and some are terrific.
It’s emotionally satisfying to blame problems on legislators and think that throwing them all out will fix everything. It won’t. Montgomery County voters should turn down the idea of term limits. (And, if they get the chance in a future election, Prince George’s County voters ought to repeal theirs.)
The writer is founder and president of Greater Greater Washington.