F.R. Duplantier reporting Behind The Headlines

Week of:
September 24, 2001
Place Expiration Dates on Politicians

F.R. Duplantier

by: F.R. Duplantier

Term limits encourage competition, which means more choices and better quality for voters.

"Term limits legislation, by design, guarantees the frequent turnover of legislators," observes Patrick Basham of the Cato Institute. "Preliminary indications confirm that the number of candidates for state office has increased," he comments, "with the result that voters in term-limited states now select from a larger pool of candidates and the outcomes of both primary and general elections are closer."

Basham highlights the manifold benefits of term limits in a recent issue of Intellectual Ammunition, published by the Heartland Institute. "Prior to term limits," he notes, "potential high-quality candidates were discouraged from running for office because it frequently took decades in political life before one achieved, largely through seniority rather than merit, any meaningful influence over legislative affairs and, ultimately, public policy. But term limits alter the institutional culture of a state legislature to the extent that freshmen legislators may possess immediate influence."

Basham predicts that "term limits will act as a restraint on the size and scope of state government," because "the psychological and philosophical makeup of term-limited legislators, in tandem with a finite tenure, coalesce in favor of limited government." He points out that "term-limited legislators appear more willing than their more senior colleagues to reassess the (statist) status quo -- that is, they are more inclined to change things, and to seek change in a more market-oriented direction."

Basham reports that "candidates in term-limited states are more ideological than their predecessors. The influx of legislators who are relatively new to politics adds to the legislative mix a whole host of previously under-appreciated private-sector insights and experiences," he comments. "The term-limited appear willing to exhibit an independence frequently absent from other state legislatures. The relatively short shelf life of a term-limited legislator," Basham notes, "seems to reduce the incentives that lead careerist legislators to support electorally efficient, but economically inefficient, government spending." He argues that "the prolonged exposure to lobbyists and bureaucrats experienced by the long-term legislator leads to bigger, not smaller, government. In practice, there is a positive correlation between the length of a legislator's career and his votes in favor of more government spending."

Term limits increase competition, Basham concludes. "Increasing competition in the political marketplace," he asserts, "leads to greater consumer choice and satisfaction." Basham also believes that "term limits may be influencing the motivation of those attracted to public office. More candidates," he hopes, "may view a brief career in the state legislature as a worthwhile, if temporary, vocation."

If bread, milk, and eggs have expiration dates, why not politicians? After all, they get stale too, they turn sour, and they go bad. In addition to trying to pass term-limits legislation or persuade candidates to sign and then abide by self-limiting pledges, we need to come up with an independent mechanism for indicating when the shelf life of a politician is up. The preferred method -- tattooing dates on their undersides -- may prove difficult to implement, and who would want to check for expiration? In the meantime, how about an online registry to publicize the rancidity of America's stalest politicians?