Careerism Ruins Good Lawmakers

GEORGE F. WILL

October 03, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

DENVER. — Denver--I have changed my mind. Myriad forms of evidence have driven me to the conclusion that my opposition to limitations on the number of terms legislators may serve is mistaken.

The evidence concerns such disparate matters as municipal garbage collection, interest groups in Sacramento and 8,331 bounced personal checks on the House side of the U.S. Capitol.

Colorado's enactment of limits last year rebutted the assertion that limits are merely a partisan ploy by Republicans unable to beat Democrats in fair fights. Colorado's senators and six members of Congress are evenly divided between parties, and both chambers of its legislature have Republican majorities.

In Washington state, liberal Democrats are prominent in the drive to enact limits more stringent than Colorado's retroactive limits. If constitutional, they would retire all of Washington's eight congressmen, including Speaker Tom Foley, by 1994.

Furthermore, 70 percent of Americans favor limits. Of course, an even higher percentage of legislators oppose them, even though the president and a majority of governors live with limits.

True, many great careers are long, and long legislative careers would become impossible. However, more talent is excluded from public service by clogging the system with immovable incumbents, and by the atrophy of talents formerly interested in more than job security, than would be lost by term limits.

It is said that interest groups will have magnified influence if ''rookies'' replace ''experienced professionals'' in legislatures. But then why, in 1990, did so many California interest groups fight so fiercely against the term limits passed by initiative?

Because those interests have the incumbents (of both parties, who get the lion's share of campaign contributions) wired. The interests panic at the thought of any disruption of the relationship of mutual aggrandizement that exists between career lobbyists and the permanent government.

When a city like Philadelphia, near bankruptcy, is unwilling to save many millions of dollars by privatizing garbage collection, the inescapable conclusion is that public interest is being sacrificed to the convenience of elected city officials protecting their long-term relationship with the municipal employee unions. Term limits would break the nexus based on long careers in electoral offices.

Mark Petrucca of the University of California, Irvine, argues that the professionalization of politics is incompatible with the core values of representative government. Professionalization entails a relationship between ''experts'' and "clients," roles that disconnect and distance professionals from what James Madison called ''the communion of interests and sympathy of sentiments'' that should exist in a republic between the elected and the governed.

Increasingly, Congress creates problems its members then rush forth to ''solve.'' Congress creates programs, which entail bureaucracies; then members act as ombudsmen, intervening on behalf of grateful constituents.

Today's ''permanent government'' justifies its permanency by its complexity: Only ''experienced professionals'' can navigate within it. The complexity supports such ancillary professions as lawyering and lobbying. Lawyers and lobbyists guide mere citizens, those pathetic novices, through the labyrinth of the leviathan the ''experienced professionals'' have erected.

This week, members of the House of Representatives can still put their excessive pay in their amazingly friendly private bank the members' bank that had not penalized their rubber checks. But they are supposed to start acting like other Americans and stop bouncing checks so promiscuously (the 8,331 total was from just one 12-month period).

However, they bounced so many because they do not think like -- or think they are like -- other Americans, and they disdain rules and laws governing other Americans.

Besides, their private behavior mimics their professional behavior. These ''experienced professionals'' govern by writing trillions of dollars worth of government checks against insufficient funds. It is called deficit spending.

To govern is to choose. A legislature's primary duty is to budget. Careerism has rendered the professional political class unwilling to make hard choices, the only important kind.

There are many questions about term limits. How many terms are appropriate? Can states constitutionally limit the terms of their congressional delegations?

If not how can the political class be brought to heel? Are term limits ''undemocratic''? If so, so what? Why did the Founders not establish limits?

What would be the sociology of legislatures when service in them cannot be a career, only a leave of absence from real life? What kind of person, at what point in life, will run?

Consider this column fair warning: I shall often recur to this subject.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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