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Term Limits: Right Reform, Wrong Reasons

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AS an advocate for rotation in office for local, state, and national elected officials, I am frequently asked to defend the popular case for term limits. Term limitation is the right reform for America, yet it is frequently advocated by politicians, pundits, and average citizens for the wrong reasons.

America's 18th-century revolutionaries viewed rotation in office as a tenet of radical democracy. They believed that rotation would check the excesses of public power, increase the opportunity for citizens to serve in public office, and strengthen the linkages between representatives and constituents. Rotation remains an essential means of keeping government as near to the people as possible, a potent remedy for "permanent government" and the professionalization of American politics.

Opponents claim that the need for greater legislative turnover is vastly overstated. They argue that congressional term limits will rob voters of their choice on election day; increase the power of special interests, legislative staff, and the executive branch; and squander needed legislative leadership, experience, and expertise. Though meritorious, each argument has a persuasive rebuttal.

However, I am less troubled by the mistaken reasons for opposing term limits than I am by the wrong reasons for supporting them. Should we adopt term limits for the wrong reasons, dashed expectations and heightened citizen frustration will be the legacy of this worthy reform. For example:

1. Incumbents deserve term limits. Voters are fed up with the antics of America's legislators. The nation goes without policies to remedy the problems of unemployment, economy recovery, health care, AIDS, energy dependence, and environmental degradation, while state and national legislators feed eagerly at the public trough and manage their personal careers. For many Americans, state and national lawmakers have "earned" term limits as their just punishment.

Anger and retribution are poor motivations for constitutional reform, however. The principle of rotation in office is not retributive. By restraining the abuse of public power that stems from "placeholding" in office, rotation is preventative. By opening up public office to citizen participation and enhancing the quality of representation, rotation is a tool for civic empowerment.


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