Commentary

Defining Democracy Down

By Patrick Basham
February 9, 2002

Democracy is not alive and well in Idaho. On the heels of comparable efforts throughout the nation, on Feb. 1 the Idaho state legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto to become the first state to repeal term limits.

The critics’ argument that term limits unfairly restrict the right of voters to elect who they want rings a little hollow in this case. After all, the voters of Idaho overwhelmingly approved term limits by initiative in 1994. Idaho’s voters reaffirmed term limits in 1996, 1998 and 2000. Clearly, Idaho voters want some reasonable restrictions placed on the options available on any given ballot for the state legislature.

A lot is at stake with the repeal of term limits. If the people they constrain can overturn term limits, we have to ask whether voters have ultimate control over their political servants. Term limits offer hope to state taxpayers that the future will not be like its past of endless spending, taxing, and incompetent administration — the inevitable results of state political systems dominated by careerist politicians.

Term limits’ critics reply that the people always have the power to reject incumbents. But relatively few incumbent politicians are defeated in the normal course of events. Absent term limits, significant turnover only occurs after years of fiscal irresponsibility and incompetence. In most jurisdictions, the ship of state apparently has to sink before the crew can be fired, such are the advantages of incumbency.

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 (or economic) marketplace. It does assure 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 extremely difficult and expensive to overcome the inherent advantages of incumbency (e.g., name recognition, subsidized office staff and mailings, and constituency service). Absent term limits, not only are fewer incumbents threatened by serious challengers, thereby reducing political competition, but 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. Idaho’s term limits law, for example, was the product of overwhelming public opinion as registered in a free and fair election. Over the past decade, the term limits-by-referendum experience was replicated innumerable times at both the state and local level. In the Idaho case, the state Supreme Court recently upheld the term limits law against the latest legal challenge.

Doesn’t legitimately expressed, constitutionally defensible popular sentiment count for something in our representative democracy? Apparently the contemporary political class of careerist legislators thinks not.

Critics have long maintained that term limits will reduce the quality of the average elected official. In Idaho, foes of term limits think a majority of the 1994 electorate were dazzled by the pro-term limits campaign and, consequently, failed to appreciate how such limits will weaken state government.

But what if Idaho voters got it right the first time? After all, a growing body of evidence suggests term limits help to foster a reinvigorated political culture. These remedial measures remain overwhelmingly popular and appear increasingly effective at fostering political competition and strengthening the political culture. This belated democratization of state politics threatens only entrenched incumbents.

Most Americans know the consequences of electing politicians without term limits. We know why term limits help democracy. Term limits should be a vital part of our system of representative government. We should stick with the voters and keep term limits.

Patrick Basham is a senior Fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.