D.C. City Council Rejects Voters and Freedom

This article was first published in the Washington Post, July 1, 2001.
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Democracy is not alive and well in the District. Seven years ago the peopleof Washington voted for term limits for members of the D.C. Council.Recently, that same council decided to repeal those limits and overturn thevoters' decisions.

In support of the council, a June 12 editorial said term limits unfairlyrestrict the right of voters to elect whom they want. But if the people whomterm limits constrain can overturn them, do voters really have ultimatecontrol over their servants on the council? Term limits offer hope that theDistrict's future will not be like its past of endless spending, incompetentadministration and hapless bankruptcy, the results of careerist politicianson the D.C. Council.

Critics of term limits reply that the people always have the power to rejectincumbents. As The Post noted, five council members have been defeated inrecent years. Yet those five lost only after years of fiscalirresponsibility and incompetence culminating in bankruptcy and creation ofa control board.

Democracy is about political choice fostered by meaningful politicalcompetition. 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 inherentadvantages of incumbency. The result is that fewer candidates step forward to challenge these incumbents in the first place, thereby reducing politicalchoice.

Democracy is also about respecting the choices of the people. The District'sterm limits law, for example, was the product of overwhelming public opinionas 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 popularsentiment count for something in our representative democracy?

Critics have long maintained that term limits will reduce the quality of theaverage elected official. In Washington, foes of term limits think amajority of the 1994 electorate simply failed to appreciate how such limitswill weaken local government. If the 1994 judgment is wrong, shouldn't thecouncil seek the public view in a second referendum on the issue? Whysubstitute 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 haveimplemented term limits. These remedial measures remain overwhelminglypopular 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.