June 5, 2013

Editorial: Term limits not the answer


---- — Term limits aren’t the answer. In fact, they are a serious problem for a democracy.

Every now and then, the suggestion emerges that we institute term limits on every elective office. Most often, the idea is brought up as an antidote for corruption.

Just the other day, we ran a Speakout in which the writer insisted term limits would end corruption in Albany and everywhere else.

We understand the sentiment, though we don’t agree with the remedy. The thinking is that if somebody didn’t want the job so much or stay in it so long, the temptation to act immorally would dwindle, if not evaporate altogether.

The founding fathers were actually divided on the issue. Alexander Hamilton argued vigorously for a lifetime president, mimicking the British monarchy. Hamilton had no faith in rank-and-file citizens to wisely choose a leader every four years.

Fortunately, John Adams and others — including George Washington, who didn’t want the job for life — had the numbers on their side, and the presidency and other offices were put up for election regularly.

The biggest problem with term limits is that they deprive the electorate of the person they may most want in office representing them and conducting their business.

In a republic, the government should not be telling the people whom they may not have as their representative. (This is not absolute, of course. Qualifications must be established for every job, and such considerations as the person’s legal history ought to be factored.)

The more the government tries to limit public prerogatives, the less effective “of the people, by the people and for the people” becomes.

Surely, familiarity with the process has from time to time tempted office holders to abuse their positions. Few facts of life are so frustrating.

But the solution is to address each instance quickly and forcefully, not to take away voters’ options through legislation.

In what other line of work is a person disqualified because of experience? In government, as in every other job, experience is an asset, not a liability.

Would anyone prefer to entrust the important work of government representation to a novice, all other things being equal?

If the person elected to office turns out to be a scoundrel, the people elected the wrong person. The system didn’t fail; the voters did.

Moreover, the best candidates for office may not even try if they knew it was for only a brief period of their lives. Who would interrupt a promising career to run for State Legislature, say, if they knew that after two or three terms they would certainly have to either return to their original career (if it were still available) or find another?

It’s tempting to try to erase political corruption with a surface solution, such as term limits.

But the remedy must not be at the expense of the people and democracy.