The political life of Riley Baltimore County councilman: Case shows that term limits, even self-imposed, are bad.

October 18, 1997

DOUGLAS B. RILEY, a Baltimore County councilman, is the latest testament to the folly of term limits. Seven years ago, the Towson Republican promised to serve only two four-year terms if elected to the County Council. He expected most people would be burned out after eight years, he said. We also suspect that Mr. Riley sensed that such a promise would serve him well with voters. Discontent with government was mile-high then. Voters were enamored of the idea of regularly infusing politics with fresh blood. Some counties (though not Baltimore County) imposed term limits. Mr. Riley won that year, and again in 1994. He has proven competent and straightforward. And so, to his credit, he feels bound by his pledge.

It has turned out to be as foolish as it was expedient. A year from his promised exit, Mr. Riley is not burned out. He appears eager for greater responsibilities. Assuming he stays in office the next four years and performs well, he would be a strong candidate for executive in 2002, when his ally, C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger -- who has an excellent shot at winning re-election in 1998 -- leaves office. Mr. Riley's chances diminish if he leaves, because it is easier to step from one public office to a higher one than to retire and come back.

None of this would matter much if Mr. Riley's ambition were the only factor. But his constituents -- some of whom no doubt voted for him because they liked the two-term promise -- seem to want to keep him on the council.

Whether self-imposed or mandated, term limits for legislators are a bad idea. Happily, their popularity seems to have peaked.

Even the Republican Congress, which made term limits a plank in its Contract with America, has killed them. Such limits are unnecessary because voters can end the tenure of a bad lawmaker in any election. And they are counterproductive because they deprive the public of qualified representatives.

We doubt many voters will hold it against Mr. Riley if he says that, knowing more than he did in 1990, he would like to reconsider a run for a third term. Other candidates should learn to stop making this silly pledge. A leader's promises are never easily broken. They should not be wasted on such shortsighted, self-serving matters as term limits.

Pub Date: 10/18/97

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