Plenty wrong, but term limitations won't fix it Gridlock in Washington

June 01, 1994|By Alan Edelstein

THE movement to establish term limits for elected representatives is perhaps indicative of one thing above all else: Americans don't trust other Americans to vote for responsible people to represent them. This mistrust of fellow citizens is the major reason efforts are under way in so many regions in the country to restrict the number of terms elected representatives can serve.

This is not the first time a nationwide movement based on Americans' mistrust of other Americans has captured the nation's imagination. Prohibition was in a very large degree a result of exactly the same attitude. Even as they voted in favor of Prohibition, Americans wanted to drink, a point easily demonstrated by the success of the speakeasies. What Americans didn't want was for other Americans to drink. Prohibition was a failed social experiment. Americans generally were disenchanted with it. The nation enthusiastically repealed Prohibition at the first opportunity.

In time, the same will be said if more legislation to limit terms is enacted. "More legislation," because the people already have the means to limit the terms of their representatives in Washington. It's called not voting for them, and while the system is imperfect -- incumbents have a decided advantage in most elections -- by and large it works.

At least the majority of Americans seem to think it works. Surveys consistently indicate that most Americans are happy with their own elected officials. It is the elected representatives of other Americans with whom they are dissatisfied.

How frequently is too frequently and how long is too long are, at the moment, open questions. But the question of term limits for the people's representatives is not, and that is dangerous. To limit terms is effectively to deprive the people of the right to choose whom they can elect to office.

If you want to vote the rascals out, by all means do so. But let the people decide whom they want as their representatives for as long as they want them as their representatives. To do otherwise to create a further imbalance in the system of checks and balances. Term limits for members of Congress will result in a lame-duck legislative body accompanying a lame-duck presidency. Only the justices of the Supreme Court will be protected by law from length-of-service restrictions if we choose to limit the tenure of national representatives.

Another factor should be considered here: If politicians represent the people for only a limited time, the power and influence of those who are behind the scenes will increase proportionately. Most people seem to agree that the current bureaucracy in Washington is awful. It is frightening to imagine what government machinery will be like when the tenure of duly elected officials is limited by law while the bureaucrats retain their influence indefinitely. Faceless, nameless bureaucrats will effectively control the government simply by the fact of longevity.

As bad as everyone else's politicians are, at least they're answerable to those who elect or re-elect them. The bureaucrats aren't an swerable to anyone. It is difficult to understand how this is going to help our political system work more effectively, just as it is difficult to see how depriving Americans of the right to vote for the candidates they prefer furthers democracy.

Alan Edelstein is associate professor of sociology at Towson State University.

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