One of the biggest debates that goes on among people who watch and discuss politics is whether or not there should be term limits for politicians. Some states have enacted term limits on both a state and federal level. Those who argue against these limits usually cite the arguments that they take away choice from the voter, as well as limit the career of an effective politician. They also argue that if voters really wanted a change, they could always vote the incumbents out. Unfortunately, these arguments hold true only if we live in a perfect world, which we obviously do not. The truth is that the powers of the incumbancy are all to real and they overshadow any arguments one can muster against term limits.
One of the problems of unlimited terms is that in order to stay in office, politicians must acquire vast sums of money to wage a re-election campaign. This means that they are prone to pleasing special interest groups that provide the PAC money that finances their campaign. The problem is that this money easily corrupts an incumbent's vote in order to keep that money flowing. Secondly, politician's need to keep pleasing the voters, since they need their re-election vote. Since the incumbent must now pander to a fickle electorate, they are prone to pork barrel spending and ill conceived projects to make them look good back home. Too much of the electorate seems to be fooled and have a disconnect between the taxes that they pay and the pork barrel spending that goes on. Many of our elected representatives know this and seem all too happy to go on fooling them. The result of PAC money, and the problem of pandering to the wants of the electorate so as not to alienate them, is that urgent problems that need attention are going unattended and unresolved. This will come back to haunt us later on.
Those that argue that we are eliminating a choice for the voter are not looking at the whole picture either. I argue just the opposite. In reality, voters would have more choices if term limits were in place. Why? Because few dare to challenge an incumbent's position. The cost of waging an effective campaign today is prohibitive for many individuals. These challengers don't have access to the perks that go with incumbancy, such as free publicity, free mailings and the ability of the previously mentioned pork barrel spending. Therefore, many people won't even try, leaving the race to the few people who have the resources to do so. In addition, you rarely see a challenge to an incumbent from within his own party, as the party bosses would do everything to defeat the challenge. Party bosses know how hard it is to defeat an incumbent in the general election. So, in order to make sure that their party holds onto that seat and stays in power, they will squash the upstart campaign. Yes, they know that the incumbent may be a bum, but he's their already elected bum, and that's all they care about. In addition, the challenger would be ostracized in future party politics. Simply put, if he wants a future in politics with that party, he won't challenge. All of this leads to a lack of choices for the voter.
Now, do term limits really limit the careers of effective politicians? Well, that depends on how you define "effective". I've seen many new politicians get elected with a "change the system" attitude. After several terms in office, they end up being no better than the people that they originally replaced. They effectively learned the system, and that's how they became "effective". Essentially, the system corrupted them. A democracy demands that new people with new ideas be continually incorporated into the system. This prevents stagnation and corruption from flourishing, as the incumbents number one concern of staying in power is negated. The system we have now actually stifles new ideas since the same people hold the same offices year after year.
Lastly, can voters really vote the people out of office that they want out? Yes, but not in the real world. At least not en masse, which is what we need in order to keep bringing new ideas into the system and allowing them to be heard. Why don't people vote them out? I've talked in other position papers about the "us" versus "them" syndrome, which is a problem that the two party system has left us with. Essentially, this philosophy says that no matter how bad our candidate is, we can't vote for the candidate of the other party. It's "us" versus "them". Term limits suppresses this syndrome by forcing new candidates into office. We now have term limits for the Presidency, which most people agree is a good idea. So why wouldn't they be a good idea for other offices? And if people are really afraid that we may be barring exceptional candidates, we could always fashion the term limit law to only have the person sit out one or two terms for that office. Then, if the people want them back, they could vote them in again. This type of system would still allow for the inflow of new ideas, while still leaving the door open for a candidate's return if the voters still want him.
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