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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Term Limits Op-Ed

Rep. Daylin Leach with an editorial on why term limits are a bad idea in the Patriot News. Leach resorts to the standard three part argument - term limits are anti-democratic, increase power to staff and bureaucrats, and result in lost expertise.

1) Anti-Democratic. The notion that voters should be able to "elect whomever they want" actually runs counter to the constitution. While voters may want to elect to the General Assembly a recent high school graduate (i.e. 19 years old) running on education reform, a neighbor who has been very active in the local community (but who lives one block outside the district boundary), a policy wonk campaigning on limiting spending who moved to the state three years ago, or a reformed felon campaigning on judicial reform - they will be denied this "right" under the Pennsylvania Constitution.

In fact, term limits itself should be looked at as democratic. We would need a constitutional amendment-voted on by the people-to enact term limits. And term limits are designed to protect voters from politicians who abuse power to win local favor, rather than make good policy for the good of the whole state.

2) Increase power to staff and bureaucrats. In case Rep. Leach hasn't noticed, the power and influence of legislative staff and bureaucrats are of great concern to voters now. At the Senate State Government hearing at which term limits are discussed, one Senator remarked "it takes a long time to build relationships with bureaucrats". But it is precisely these "relationships" which are viewed as corruptive to the system. Term limits should break the hold of political staffers and bureaucrats who are trading favors with lawmakers.

3) Loss of Expertise. Rep. Leach argues that term limits imply that highly qualified persons "need not apply". But those who spend their entire adult life running for the same elected office have no real expertise. Career politicians have expertise on campaigning, working the political system, and such, but not on how the economy works, what is wrong with public education, or how to reform healthcare. Term limits - combined with a part-time legislature - would imply that doctors, teachers, small business entrepreneurs and the like - those with real expertise would be the ones setting policy.

Rep Leach makes the mistake of citing Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and James Madison as examples of career politicians who would be lost to the "silly gimmick of term limits". Rep. Leach needs a refresher in American History.

First, none of these men remained in the same elective office for more than a few years. Term limits of 12 or even 8 years would not have affected them at all. While they were involved in political life, they moved from position to position - federal, state, and local offices and serving overseas. Second, all of these founding fathers were part-time, citizen lawmakers - a trend we need to return to.

Madison was a lawyer and author (the law firm of Jefferson, Madison, & Monroe must have dominated the Charlottesville market for attorneys in the 18th century). Jefferson was an architect, inventor, writer, and educator outside of his professional politics. And Ben Franklin is probably the worst example of a "professional politician" and the best example of an entrepreneur in the history of our country - he established his own printing and publishing business, wrote Poor Richard's Almanac, experimented with electricity and became a world renowned scientist, invented bifocals and the Franklin Stove (among other things) - and then, only from time-to-time, did he serve as a citizen legislator in the Colonial Assembly, Continental Congress, or at the Constitutional Convention.

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