Commentary

D.C. City Council Rejects Voters and Freedom

By Patrick Basham and John Samples
This article was first published in the Washington Post, July 1, 2001.
Democracy is not alive and well in the District. Seven years ago the people of Washington voted for term limits for members of the D.C. Council. Recently, that same council decided to repeal those limits and overturn the voters’ decisions.

In support of the council, a June 12 editorial said term limits unfairly restrict the right of voters to elect whom they want. But if the people whom term limits constrain can overturn them, do voters really have ultimate control over their servants on the council? Term limits offer hope that the District’s future will not be like its past of endless spending, incompetent administration and hapless bankruptcy, the results of careerist politicians on the D.C. Council.

Critics of term limits reply that the people always have the power to reject incumbents. As The Post noted, five council members have been defeated in recent years. Yet those five lost only after years of fiscal irresponsibility and incompetence culminating in bankruptcy and creation of a control board.

Democracy is about political choice fostered by meaningful political competition. In a democracy, all partisan interests and ideological flavors have a chance to make their case to the electorate. A well-functioning democracy does not guarantee success in the political marketplace. It does ensure that everyone should potentially be capable of securing elected office. Term limits further this democratic goal by guaranteeing the regular turnover of politicians in and out of office. Without term limits, the average challenger finds it difficult and expensive to overcome the inherent advantages of incumbency. The result is that fewer candidates step forward to challenge these incumbents in the first place, thereby reducing political choice.

Democracy is also about respecting the choices of the people. The District’s term limits law, for example, was the product of overwhelming public opinion as registered in a free and fair election. In a 1994 referendum, 62 percent of District voters — a majority in every ward — supported limiting the mayor, council members and the school board members to two consecutive four-year terms.

Doesn’t legitimately expressed, constitutionally defensible popular sentiment count for something in our representative democracy?

Critics have long maintained that term limits will reduce the quality of the average elected official. In Washington, foes of term limits think a majority of the 1994 electorate simply failed to appreciate how such limits will weaken local government. If the 1994 judgment is wrong, shouldn’t the council seek the public view in a second referendum on the issue? Why substitute the judgment of a self-serving council majority for that of a majority of the voters?

To date, 3,000 term-limited cities, counties and towns nationwide have implemented term limits. These remedial measures remain overwhelmingly popular and appear increasingly effective at fostering political competition and strengthening the political culture. This belated democratization of local politics threatens only entrenched incumbents. The District soon will make a new beginning as the control board returns power to local officials. We know the consequences of having a D.C. Council without term limits. We know why term limits help democracy. We should stick with the voters and keep term limits for the council.

John Samples and Patrick Basham are, respectively, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Representative Government and a senior fellow at the center.