After the Rhetoric, What’s the Record?

By Anthony D. Mc Ivor

Second of four essays on the Term Limit proposal submitted by  La Mesa Today member Anthony D. Mc Ivor. Readers are encouraged to comment below or submit formal responses to be considered for publication.

LA MESA -- In November, La Mesa voters will decide whether to change the Municipal Code and put into law a significant new ordinance. The ordinance will tell us – and future generations of La Mesa voters – who we can vote for, who we can’t and when.

Term limits are a politically-driven experiment that has already inflicted needless waste and expense on jurisdictions across the country. And the worst of it? There is simply no evidence that they work. Quite the contrary.

After 25 years of experimentation, the benefits claimed by advocates remain unrealized. Nor have term limits put a civic renaissance on the near horizon – anywhere. Experienced observers on both sides of the aisle now consider term limits political fool’s gold.

The word most often used to describe the impact of term limits is “disaster.” And not just in Sacramento. Evidence of failure comes from all directions.

The Joint Project on Term Limits – a cooperative effort by a team of political scientists, and professional staff at the National Council of State Legislatures, the Council of State Governments and the State Legislative Leaders Foundation – examined the effects of term limits and concluded that while limits have indeed weakened legislatures institutionally, “the consequences were not as dire as they might have been.” And that’s the good news.

Political scientists at Florida Atlantic University tested the popular assumption the term limits produce more competition for elective office. Analyzing election data from Florida and Maine, their published research concluded that competition did not increase and “in fact, it generally declined, often sharply.”

Brian Tucker, publisher of Crain’s Cleveland Business, writes that anyone who thinks term limits are a panacea “ought to talk with folks in the Buckeye State where term limits have wrought havoc and created even more divisiveness in Columbus.”

Writing in the non-partisan State News (West), Mary Lou Cooper asks whether term limits accomplish “what they set out to do.” Her survey of new research shows that term limits did nothing to discourage “professional politicians.” Instead, she reports, “newcomers were more likely than any other group to have held public office prior to their election.”

Still more discouraging, legislators in term-limited chambers spend less time keeping in touch with constituents, and Cooper says, “term-limited lawmakers say they spend less time securing…projects for their districts.”

David King, faculty chair at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has studied term limits since the early 1990’s. In 2010, he observed that “The evidence after 20 years of this in state legislatures is crystal clear: term limits empower special interests, lobbyists and long-time staffers and they work against the interests of the American people.”

Given all that, why are limits even proposed? “People react,” King explained, “by their instinct and anger, which is understandable. But sometimes instinct and anger take us in the wrong direction.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it.

President Reagan arrived at the same conclusion. After much thought, he called term limits “a mistake,” and “an infringement on the democratic rights of the people.”

Term limits are more than an infringement; they are plainly a blunder. If the best that can be said for them is “it could have been worse,” they are just as plainly a gamble.

And the bad news on this sham approach to public policy just keeps coming. Have a look at the empirical sources that inform Jordan Ragusa’s recent piece in the Christian Science Monitor, “Midterm Elections: Why the Logic of ‘throwing the bums out’ Is Wrong.” (2 Sept 2014)

The term limits experiment is a fiasco. Arkansas House Speaker Davy Carter, a Republican, nailed it for all levels of government. “They don’t work,” he said. “If (their impact) doesn’t give you cause for concern, it should.”

Turnover on the La Mesa City Council this year will be at least 40% – without term limits. Our city runs well because La Mesans have elected competent officials for 100 years – without the heavy hand of term limits. We are still capable of making those decisions. We can still handle a full ballot. We do not need a new ordinance to narrow our choices for us.

So, should we gamble our unrestricted freedom of choice on the false promise of a failed political fad? Should our children have to live with the consequences? Or, should we decline to gamble in November and instead dispatch term limits to the bin of bad ideas? It’s still our choice to make.

Part I of this series here.

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Tags: Anthony Mc Ivor, La Mesa Today, La Mesa newspaper, La Mesa politics, Term Limits


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Comment by Anthony D. Mc Ivor on September 21, 2014 at 7:27am

Ms. Alessio – A generous offer. Thank you.  What a shame we did not have the wit to think of it months ago!  For now, everything I have to say on term limits will appear right here in La Mesa Today.

Here's an alternative thought: I’m talking with people about a new civic culture project - everything to do with local elections, but not this election. Strictly non-partisan, it could become an instrument for enabling change constructively. Would be great to have your perspective.  Any interest?   

Comment by Fred Neubecker on September 18, 2014 at 1:51pm

In all the studies about term limits sited they fail to state the intangible "the one or more lifetime candidates in office that were the start of people discussing term limits in the first place" . Term limits is one way to get the results you want. Another way is to campaign vigorously. It's not a Gamble or an Experiment it is our Democratic Process at work

Comment by Kristin Kjaero on September 18, 2014 at 1:30pm

Ms. Alessio repeats a falsehood that needs illumination: Under term limits voters are not allowed to "vote however they want." If one thinks someone has done a good job and wants to retain them, too bad, you couldn't vote that way.

It's the height of self-interest to maintain that because one's chosen candidates didn't win, the system must be rigged and therefore we must tear it down. They would ban a class of candidates and then allow the rest of us to choose from what remains, but limiting the choices of others has the whiff of totalitarianism. It's patronizing at best; 32,345 votes were cast by La Mesa voters in last city council election.

Comment by Kristine Christensen Alessio on September 18, 2014 at 10:13am

Mr. Mc Ivor, your responses reflect an unfamiliarity with local politics.  The reality of politics on the ground, especially here in  La Mesa, paints a vastly different picture than your idealistic approach.  I'll give you this, in a Utopian world, term limits would not be needed, but we are living in the real word, and election reform is needed, even at the local level.  To quote from the Federalist 51, it may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But, what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.  If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.  In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficult lays in this:  You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

Your argument regarding citizens not being able to vote is logically invalid.  They can vote however they want, and if they have voted to limit a politicians time in office, that's a limitation of a completely democratic kind.  Period.  Does this mean that everyone will agree with the decision, of course not, but that's the way democracies work.

As much as I believe this exchange to be valuable, I have a better idea.  I am challenging you to debate me on Term Limits.  A moderated debate that is taped and will be available on YouTube.  It doesn't need to be in a public place, it can be in my office conference room for flexibility of scheduling.  We can each chose a moderator or jointly agree on one.  What do you say Mr. Mc Ivor?

Comment by Anthony D. Mc Ivor on September 17, 2014 at 10:34pm

Ms. Alessio – (Re: response to Mr. Carpenter) So, citizens can vote for whomever they wish, except when they can’t.  On the occasions when they cannot – which with normal turnover and staggered terms could become every election, not every 12 years – if the challenging candidates running at that time are not quite up to snuff, then tough luck?  And if by coincidence it is a particularly critical time for the city, just wait four years and try to fix it?  What a wonderfully wacky idea. Today, we have an unrestricted ballot that provides the flexibility to deal with such contingencies with no down time – why give it up?

The notion that candidates who are forced from office will return to “the life of an everyday citizen” is charming, but whimsical.  In La Mesa, the mayor and council are part-time positions. Those office holders cannot “be returned” to everyday life for the simple reason that they never left it.  They still have jobs, businesses, classrooms and professional practices to run.  Very day-to-day, out there among the people. 

La Mesa does not suffer the yoke of a remote political oligarchy or ruling class. We have the rare good fortune to have public officials who are exceptionally accessible.  Stop any one of them on the street and you will soon be in a first-name-basis conversation.  Do we really need the rough medicine of term limits to help us deal with that?     

Comment by Lisa Moore on September 17, 2014 at 9:43pm

Amazing!  There are 3 or 4 of the posters of messages here that love to go on and on and on.  I think I have read most of the postings and after the first page or two,it is just a repeat of what was said earlier.  As they would say in a political discussion.....can we call for a vote!!! 

Comment by Kristine Christensen Alessio on September 17, 2014 at 5:20pm

Gene, of course you do.  You vote for whomever you want, excepting that every four years out of twelve they are returned to the life of an everyday citizen.  No perks, no applause, no detachment from reality.  If someone is so good that you wish you could vote for them after a twelve years in office, bring them back.  Do you really believe any local governmental official is so beyond the rest of us that he/she could not be replaced by an able citizen for a four year period?  My God if I thought that about myself (no one could ever adequately replace me on the Council) you'd have to agree that I'd diagnosed with some sort of mental disorder!

Comment by Kristine Christensen Alessio on September 17, 2014 at 3:39pm
Well, let's start with this issue, you, Mr. Mc Ivor riddle your anti-term limits with cites taken out of context and that seem to address State government, not local government, not the Presidency. There are multiple other cites saying they do work. Check out the Cato Institute's article here (just one of many) And another, Better case in point for the efficacy of term limits -- the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution! Alas, we could go back and forth with competing studies. But, we would be failing to recognize that many of the issues debated are inapplicable to La Mesa. We don't have a steep learning curve for a part time Council and Mayor, anyone commenting here could learn the ropes of City government in a month. We don't have lobbyists (unless you count those special interests who lobby us on outside Boards and Commissions). So in La Mesa it really boils down to getting rid of the incumbent advantage and preventing career politicians. The most money ever spent in a Council race was by a non-incumbent and that candidate finished last! If that's not a resounding acknowledgement of the power of incumbency, then nothing is. How is an average citizen ever going to compete? Don't you agree that our Country is founded on the principles that everyday citizens should serve? That there should not be a political elite?

Your unsound argument of limited choice of the voter has now been defeated so you are moving on with emotional plea (i.e. -- what will happen to future generations?). What will happen? Like a hundreds of other places, those future generations of La Mesans will elect officials who cannot by virtue of term limits become entrenched in power and detached from those they are supposed to represent. Also,
the playing field will be leveled and we will have an opportunity for a more diverse Council that is in touch with the needs and concerns of the citizens of La Mesa. The teacher, the waitress, the realtor, the plumber, the owner of a taco shop, the single mother working at Target, all of them will have the opportunity to serve that they currently do not have without Term Limits. They will no longer be competing against the incumbency advantage. We will get those who want to serve, not those interested in themselves.

I see this as coming down to a choice between two issues: 1. With term limits in place we may lose someone who has been effective in their years of service. This assumes that there are not enough qualified people to take that persons place; or 2. We get rid of dead wood, incompetent, career politicians. We fill these positions with those interested in only one thing, service to their community. For me, I'll take door number two any day.
Comment by Gene Carpenter on September 17, 2014 at 3:26pm
We should be allowed to not be allowed to vote for who we want if we want to?
Comment by Fred Neubecker on September 17, 2014 at 12:54pm

I quote from the Harvard Business Review "

Loss of control. Change interferes with autonomy and can make people feel that they’ve lost control over their territory. It’s not just political, as in who has the power. Our sense of self-determination is often the first things to go when faced with a potential change coming from someone else. Smart leaders leave room for those affected by change to make choices. They invite others into the planning, giving them ownership."

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