Cabbage Patch Dolls And Term Limits

COMMENT

November 08, 1992|By KEVIN THOMAS DTC

Howard Countians have thrown their support behind one of the most bogus political fads to come along in some time, approving term limits for County Council members by a lopsided margin of 78 percent to 22 percent.

I might also point out that there was a time when people put their names on waiting lists by the thousands to buy Cabbage Patch dolls.

While I oppose term limits, I must confess that nine years ago I did place my name on one of those Cabbage Patch lists. So I

think I understand why so many people fell for the allure of term limits. I also believe that, like the doll craze, the luster of term limits will fade as voters realize that they're not what they're cracked up to be.

But this was the year to send them a message. In a resounding "We've had enough" cry, voters in numerous states, including Florida, Nebraska and Ohio, endorsed term limits for members of Congress. With the people concerned about the influence of special interests and the seeming proliferation of career politicians, term limits caught on this year like few other issues.

Save for places where the offending pol was booted out the door, term limits appealed to voters because of the notion that they provide a safety valve that will force elected officials to be closer to the people.

And Cabbage Patch dolls were supposed to be cute. Right.

The truth is that a politician who knows his time in office is up can easily ignore those who put him there in the first place. He might just as well twirl out of control in a frenzy of last-minute, self-serving pursuits. Maybe we'll have to wait to prove that point.

For now, at least, the sentiment for term limits in Howard undoubtedly mirrors the national mood. Even with evidence to the contrary, voters here suspected that too many council members were making a career of office-holding and were simply out of touch.

"The people perceive the system to be broken," said Republican County Councilman Darrel Drown, who led the term limitations movement here. "The only way to fix the system is to stop career politicians."

But Mr. Drown also conceded that at the council level, the system isn't broken; no one in recent history has served more than three terms. What the term limitations amendment does is "institutionalize" what is already the case in Howard.

The problem with institutionalization in this case is that it's unnecessary and probably a hindrance to the free expression of democracy.

In Howard County, where the system was never broken, term limitations seem a little like that unnecessary replacement carburetor that the auto mechanic slaps on to pad your bill.

In 1990, voters here routed a county executive, a County Council member and two legislators. In the defeat of County Executive Elizabeth Bobo, voters apparently perceived an arrogance and inaccessibility in their top local office holder. In spite of her incumbency and superior financing, they showed her the door.

Likewise, Angela Beltram was relieved of her County Council seat. Those are the kind of term limits I support. It's the equivalent to following the how-to book on mechanics. It's timely -- you do it when the need arises -- and it's a whole lot cheaper. Under the new rules, however, if Howard County residents wanted to keep Ms. Beltram on the council for a fourth term, they could just as well forget it. She would have to step down.

What Howard residents lose by imposing term limits is experience, and a certain amount of independence. In politics, nothing is more pitiful than a fledgling politician whose strings are being pulled by the bureaucracy he was elected to oversee. Bureaucratic staffers know when they have pols who can be easily manipulated and make short work of them.

Sometimes, experience and longevity do count for something. Possibly in the future, Howard residents will realize that they have inflicted the worse kind of disenfranchisement on themselves.

At that point, maybe they'll do away with term limits and return to the best method of registering disapproval. They'll just vote the bums out.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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