Term Limits: While Not A Panacea, Quinn & Rauner Advance Worthy Proposals (Part 1)

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Written by John Biver

Former governor Pat Quinn agrees with Bruce Rauner, the guy who made him a former governor, when it comes to term limits. While Rauner continues to press for term limits for state legislative and statewide offices, Quinn has launched an effort aimed at the City of Chicago’s mayor. More on those proposals later. First, a few comments on the issue itself.

Limiting the years a person can serve in important political offices isn’t new. In fact, it’s very old. When the ancient Greeks pioneered democratic government 2500 years ago, they set it up so the entire 500-man council meeting on Pnyx Hill in Athens had 500 new faces every year. That’s right — serve a one-year term and then you’re out. Their reasoning was simple — the goal was “democracy.” Here is one dictionary breaking down the word: From the Greek dēmokratia, from dēmos ‘the people’ +-kratia ‘power, rule.’

If the people were to rule, it would not be a good idea to vest too much power in any individual, including the power to hold office for extended periods of time.

During the American founding, term limits existed at the state level and were proposed for federal offices during the Constitutional Convention. When limits were left out, among those very concerned were Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and Mercy Otis Warren (*see footnote below).

Term limits of a sort exist in the private sector as well — it’s easy to list a few examples. There are corporations that have age-limits for their senior executives. Airline pilots have a mandatory retirement age. Jobs that are physically demanding or that require exacting physical skill have a natural limit, as do professional sports like football and baseball, obviously.

The nature of political power is different from non-political power, of course, but there’s another layer to consider within the arena of government where “We the People” purport to rule. And that layer is the nature of the people drawn to run for political office.

Let me say this first to get it over with: a lot of good men and women run for and win political office. That said — allow me to emphasize something that I believe is too often over-looked: politics is a magnet for a lot of less than good men and women.

Politics isn’t unique in attracting a certain personality type. For example, if you know anyone who works as an actor on stage, TV or film, chances are the spirit of Thespis that draws them to the stage manifests in colorful ways. They’re uninhibited to say the least.

Have any friends or family members that work in the trades such as an electrician, carpenter, mason, plumber, painters? Again, there’s a range of personalities to be found everywhere but my experience is that these tradesmen and women are sturdy, no nonsense people.

However, politics attracts so many of the wrong people that economic miracles like Illinois and the United States can be turned into economic basket cases.

The safeguards provided by separation of power, checks and balances, and even federalism don’t work too well when most people in and around government profit nicely from the system. As long as the taxpayers keep coughing up the money, there’s no reason to check or balance anything.

Elections are term limits, it’s true — but the advantages of incumbency is well documented. Sure, voters can be blamed for continuing to elect too many candidates whose goal is power, prestige and profit and not policy reform. What is clear is that far too many of the people who get their names on the ballot lack the skill level of a good accountant.

Imagine if the failure rate was similar in other professions. Compare the countless governmental policy boondoggles with the number of buildings that collapse due to poor engineering.

The next generation is inheriting debt and decline and our political class is so bright, many of them can’t even figure out who should use what bathroom.

All of the above was written to make the point that passing of term limits is no panacea. Electing a new corrupt and/or incompetent politician to replace the old politician gets you nowhere. California limits the terms of its legislators — and that state continues to accelerate in the wrong direction.

If term limits are passed in Illinois there are four key things to keep in mind:

First, if a person has been in office for 30 years on the day a ten-year term limit becomes law, that person can stretch their tenure out another ten years. The clock starts when the bill becomes a law, so there will be little immediate impact.

Second, term limits doesn’t absolve Americans from their duty to participate in the governing of their country. Politics is for everyone, not just the politically ambitious.

A third thing that comes into play is the issue of pensions, and it’s not just legislators that legally abuse the system as Jim Edgar‘s example dramatically illustrates. Right now for Illinois legislators, a person vests in the pension system after eight years in office and is eligible for a full pension after twenty years.

Fourth, if a ten year term limit is imposed, will the time needed for vesting as well as for getting full benefits be shortened? Anyone who can do the math and see the corruption of the government employee pension systems in Illinois should agree that the best course of action — at a minimum — is to get rid of all pensions for elected office holders.

Next time we’ll take a look at the proposals being advanced by Pat Quinn and Bruce Rauner.

Read Part 2

*Footnote: [W]hen the states ratified the U.S. Constitution (1787–88), several leading statesmen regarded the lack of mandatory limits to tenure as a dangerous defect, especially, they thought, as regards the presidency and the U.S. Senate. Richard Henry Lee viewed the absence of legal limits to tenure, together with certain other features of the U.S. Constitution, as “most highly and dangerously oligarchic.” Both Jefferson and George Mason advised limits on reelection to the U.S. Senate and to the Presidency, because said Mason, “nothing is so essential to the preservation of a Republican government as a periodic rotation.” The historian Mercy Otis Warren, warned that “there is no provision for a rotation, nor anything to prevent the perpetuity of office in the same hands for life; which by a little well-timed bribery, will probably be done.” ~ Source.

Post Script: For an excellent book on the philosophic backing for term limits, George Will’s Restoration holds up well after over two decades. Note also, it’s often easy to find a good review of a book should you lack the time to read it. For more information as well, visit U.S. Term Limits.


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