NOVEMBER 25, 2002
Right-thinking people generally oppose term limits. They consider
them a remnant of Perotist know-nothingism, a "throw the bums out"
quick fix that would cause more problems than it would solve. And
at the national level, right-thinking people--assisted by
politicians' natural instinct for self- preservation--have largely
won. Term limits, once a key plank of Newt Gingrich's Contract with
America, are now off the national agenda. They have failed in the
courts, which ruled that federal term limits require a
constitutional amendment; in Congress, which couldn't muster the
two-thirds vote necessary for such an amendment; and even among
many erstwhile term-limits supporters themselves--who, after
pledging not to run for reelection, went ahead and did so anyway.But right-thinking people have a problem. They hate the fact that
only about 10 percent of seats in the House of Representatives were
competitive this election. Bipartisan gerrymandering following the
2000 reapportionment produced hundreds of safe Democratic seats,
hundreds of safe Republican seats, and not much else. No wonder so
few Americans voted, the right-thinkers sigh in disgust: In most
House districts there was really only one candidate to vote for.
So what do they want to do about it? As far as I can tell, there are
three options. The first is to take redistricting away from the
pols. A few weeks ago, The New York Times wrote lovingly about the
redistricting process in Iowa. In 1981, after a series of partisan
lawsuits that wounded the Hawkeye State's goo- goo pride, Des
Moines handed redistricting over to nonpartisan technocrats. The
number crunchers are charged with creating compact, contiguous,
equally populated districts--regardless of whose ox they gore. And,
although state legislators must ultimately pass the plan, they are
generally shamed into doing so. This year, the result was that Iowa
had reasonably close general-election contests in four of its five
House districts. Not bad when you consider that California, which
boasts 53 districts, featured a close race in only one.
If every state followed Iowa's lead, American politics would be a
lot more democratic, a lot fairer, and a lot more fun. But it would
be no fun at all for incumbent politicians--most of whom would face
tough races every time the United States held a census. And that's
why the Iowa process, blissful as it would be, isn't a realistic
answer to the right-thinkers' problem. It runs smack into the
self-interest of the politicians who would have to make it happen.
And it has no ready-made ideological constituency, no preexisting
movement, left or right, which could serve as a countervailing
The second option is campaign finance reform. But McCain-Feingold,
emasculated as it has been by a right-wing Federal Elections
Commission, offers little hope of reducing the influence of money
in elections, thus giving challengers a better chance. Public
financing might have more of an impact, but Republicans hate it,
and the public isn't very supportive either.
The third option, term limits, has a better shot. For one thing,
current incumbents could be bought off with a grandfather
clause--the term limits wouldn't go into effect for their district
until they retired. For another, term limits do have a preexisting
ideological base. For close to a decade now, most conservatives
have supported them, at least rhetorically. When the issue came up
for a vote in the House in 1995, 189 Republicans voted yes and only
40 voted no. And, because of this ideological support, 17 states
have passed term limits for their own lawmakers. (State term
limits, unlike federal ones, don't require a constitutional
amendment.) If right-thinking liberals threw their weight behind
the idea as well, it might have a chance.
Would term limits make congressional races more competitive?
Absolutely. Compare races for Congress, which are not term-limited,
with races for governor, which mostly are. Of the 435 members of
the House whose seats were up this fall, 384 will serve next year.
That's a turnover rate of 12 percent. Of the 34 senators whose
seats were up, 24 or 25 (depending on the runoff in Louisiana) will
serve next year. That's a turnover rate of around 30 percent. By
contrast, of the 36 governors' mansions up for grabs this fall,
only twelve will remain in the hands of their current occupants--a
turnover rate of 66 percent. That's not because lots of incumbent
governors lost: Of the 15 sitting governors who ran this year, only
four were defeated. It's because, in 21 states, there was no
incumbent governor on the ballot, and, in more than half of those,
the reason was term limits. All in all, a whopping 20 governors'
mansions switched from Democrat to Republican or vice versa, a
party turnover rate more than ten times that in the House and
Senate. As National Journal put it, "The biggest winner in the 2002
gubernatorial races is: change."
Of course, many traditional objections to term limits remain.
Critics charge that, by ushering in a rash of inexperienced
lawmakers, term limits will either produce legislative chaos or a
Congress essentially run by a permanent staff. That, in turn, could
weaken the legislative branch's authority vis--vis the
executive--an authority already threatened by the war on terrorism
and the Bush administration's aggressive assertion of presidential
prerogative. Skeptics also point out that term limits don't
necessarily eradicate career politicians-- they just make those
career politicians run for something else. In California, which has
term limits for the state Senate, state Assembly, and many city
councils, the result has been a game of musical chairs in which the
same politicians simply switch offices.
But none of these problems threaten the democratic process as much
as the epidemic of noncompetitive elections, a plague that
alienates many Americans from their government. America's low voter
turnout stems from a host of different factors, many not solvable
by legislation. But the 2002 election clearly shows that
competitive races bring more people to the polls. Voter turnout
last week was 61 percent in both Minnesota and South Dakota, which
featured close races for the Senate, House, and governor. But it was
only 39 percent overall.
As things stand, the people who most bemoan this lack of
participation have no credible response to it. One good liberal
answer--campaign finance reform-- has been tried and, for the time
being at least, has not worked. Another-- nonpartisan, technocratic
redistricting--will probably never be tried because it lacks a
political base. Which leaves term limits, a conservative-populist
answer liberals have long scorned. Is some of that scorn justified?
Sure. But, if right-thinking people really think preordained
elections are a stain on our political system, they should embrace
a flawed solution over none at all. Or else they should stop
complaining and accept that the 2002 election is as good as
American democracy is going to get.
By Peter Beinart