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An Immodest Proposal to Improve Term Limits


No person elected to any office in the executive or legislative branch of any state, county, or local government shall be eligible to run for the same office in the election immediately succeeding their elected term of office. 


In 1990 Oklahomans voted, by a two-to-one margin, to enact term limits for state legislators. Certainly, voters must have believed they needed to be saved from themselves (or each other). After all, every legislature in the country has term limits: they’re called elections. But now, three decades later, the question must be asked: have term limits returned power to the people? 


In my observation, they have not. Rather than directing power back to the people, term limits have transferred power from the people’s representatives to… just about everywhere else. The courts have taken power for themselves time and time again. The Oklahoma Supreme Court is currently considering whether to uphold the opioid suit’s legislation from the bench. If they do, it will be the biggest power grab since the New Deal, when the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the limits of federal power were almost nonexistent. A strong legislature with experienced leadership would push back on the courts - as they finally did earlier this year regarding absentee ballot procedures. 


Unelected executive agencies, already unaccountable to the elected Governor, have also benefitted from term limits - another reason to put plenary appointment power of all agency heads back in the Governor’s hands. There is electoral accountability if the governor runs the whole executive. If he must fight and wrangle unaccountable agency heads, he can justifiably say “it’s not my fault.” Given the dramatic decrease in the attention span of the average citizen, it is helpful if many of the state’s problems can be laid at the feet of a single person. If he makes progress in solving them, he can be rewarded. If not, he can be replaced. 


But by far the biggest beneficiaries of this reduction of the power of the people’s elected representatives has been the special interests’ hired representatives: lobbyists. Why? Because they’re the only ones with any institutional memory. After a dozen years, no one is left in the legislature or the governor’s office who remembers how hard-fought a bill only 20 years old was, or why it was even worth the effort. Lobbyists can help fill in those gaps in institutional knowledge, but of course they have their own agenda, and it isn’t usually the same as what a legislator’s ought to be. 


So with all these downsides, term limits must have some upside, right? Certainly. They prevent lifelong legislators. No one can serve more than 12 years. This means that that career politicians are few and far between - only those few who go on to gain a governorship or congressional seat last even twenty years. No one can make a career out of being an Oklahoma state legislator. It would be difficult to do so anyway, given legislative salaries, but term limits seal the deal. This means everyone has to have a real job adding to the legislature’s mix of backgrounds and experiences. They must also go back and actually live and work in the world they have created, without the privilege that comes with being a legislator. 


Term limits also mean that at least some of the senior members are focused on doing the people’s work, rather than reelection. It’s often expected that a congressional representative will be absentee during the last year of their term, as they focus on reelection. While this is less of an issue in the statehouse, since districts are all within driving distance of the capitol, there is still the issue of legislators voting boondoggles to their districts in hopes of winning reelection. 


But these benefits come at the cost of forcing the most popular and experienced members to leave office before they, or their constituents, would prefer. What if there was a way to get many of these benefits without all the costs?


Instead of limiting the total number of terms a legislative member can serve, what if we instead made it illegal to run for state office while holding a state office? This would still ensure that members had to find work outside the legislature, and live in the world they have created. It would reduce, or eliminate incumbency bias - since no one could ever run as an incumbent. It would eliminate legislating from the campaign trail, since no one could run for office while holding office, and it would reduce campaigning from the legislature, since the public is likely to have forgotten whatever boondoggles they received two or more years prior to the election. In this way, we use the public’s short attention span to their own good.  


Restarting a cold engine takes more time and energy than restarting one that just shut down. Similarly, only the most energetic and committed candidates would run for a new term. Rather than inertia carrying a tired candidate to run just one more time, inertia would serve as its own kind of term limits. Those who could overcome it would likely be the kind of officials we need in government. 


Is this idea perfect? Undoubtedly not. But, to paraphrase James Madison, if angels were to govern men, no term limits would be necessary. 


Mike Davis is a Research Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at mdavis@1889institute.org. 


The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.

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