The pitfalls of term limits

I just read that a “citizen” group is embarking upon an initiative effort to enact term limits in Utah.

Long, long ago, in a land, well, not so far away here in Utah, I thought the same thing. Term limits to diminish a politician’s power. It sounds so appealing. That was before I saw government up close. After many years becoming a student of how government works, particularly at the state level, I have a whole new perspective.

The pitfalls of term limits
by Stan Lockhart

In reality, term limits merely turns elected officials into passing observers of government. Yes, they get a few things done. They help balance the budget every year and participate in group decision making. However, they are there for just a few legislative sessions and then move on and go back into the hubbub of ordinary life or, for some, a lucrative lobbying career. The power of unelected officials grows immensely. Those in charge of the bureaucratic red tape of government are those who wield the power. If they can just outlast a reformer elected office holder, then nothing need change. The vast majority of government employees are good people, well-intentioned and work hard to do what is right for Utah, but if I have to choose between unelected officials with power or elected officials with power, I choose the elected ones. Then, at least, I have some recourse if I don’t agree with their decisions.

And even more undesirable is the increased influence of lobbyists. Lobbyists know process. They know how to secure an appropriation. They know how to pass a bill. They know how to get the new elected official reelected. So the influence and power of lobbyists grows with the advent of term limits. Newly elected officials almost have no other option than to turn to lobbyists for help in learning the process.

In states without term limits, there is huge institutional memory on the part of elected officials. Ask veteran lawmakers and they can tell you the land mines to avoid and instead of retrying many ideas that have already failed, these policy makers can begin in a better place and end with better policy.

Whenever I’ve talked to policy makers from the states that have legislative term limits or heard from others who have had those discussions, they substantiate the fact that unelected officials and lobbyists have more influence on outcomes. A common thread is that it takes a few years to figure out the details of State government, whether appropriations or bill passing process. Once you figure it out, you must get others to support what you want to do. The easiest thing to do in government is kill a proposal. So by the time you figure out what needs to change in government, you are already on your way out. And the lobbyists move on to the next new candidate or elected official.

Per Wikipedia, only 15 states have legislative term limits with an additional six, including Utah, overturning or repealing previously passed term limits. The majority of the states allow for eight consecutive years of service, with the least being six years and the most being sixteen years. That so many states have more thoroughly scrutinized the effects of term limits after passing them should be a warning for those who are gung-ho to do it.

There is a common refrain that the best term limits are at the ballot box every two or four years. I agree.

Before you sign the initiative petition for term limits, ask yourself who you want to hold accountable for good government, elected officials or unelected officials? If you are like me, you’ll decline to sign and move on.


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