Friday, May 11, 2007

Term limits

During the waning days of the spring semester, I was mentally plotting a post blaming term limits for the Montana Legislature's miserable failure to pass a budget this session. Then I read Kirk Dooley's well considered post at City Lights arguing that the U.S. Congress, without term limits, has much the same problems that the Montana Legislature has with term limits.

How to respond? My first thought was that term limits hurt Montana while the lack of term limits hurts Congress. But I was not willing to walk on so high a wire.

Maybe this is closer: Term limits are simply irrelevant to the problems Congress has. Montana gets the worst of both worlds: The divisiveness and partisanship of Congress, plus the lack of institutional wisdom and seasoning caused by term limits. Add term limits to Congress, and it would be even worse than it is.

Take, for example, the congressional debate over funding the Iraq War. Sean Hannity blasts Democrats every day for "politicizing" the war, but politics is, of course, the way questions like this one are resolved in democracies. And the democratic (Democratic?) process, messy as it is, appears to slowly be working in this case. Nobody wants to leave soldiers in the field without bullets or rations, but Congress has gradually been getting across an inescapable point: The president can't simply have a blank check anymore to do whatever he wants in Iraq for as long as he wants. If Congress gives him that blank check, then voters will fire a lot of members of Congress in the next election -- and they will be replaced by representatives even more hostile to the president's aims. This may not be a message that will penetrate the president's skull, but Republicans in Congress are certainly hearing it.

In other words, in Washington the system is working, in its usual awkward and ugly fashion. In Montana, the whole thing broke down -- and I still blame term limits.

SIDEBAR: One of the most annoying aspects of the debate in Helena over budget surpluses is advanced by groups like this one: The surplus should be returned to the people because the money came from the people. Of course the money came from the people. Every cent the state spends comes from the people. There is no other source. The money came from the people, and it is up to the people to decide how best to dispose of it. That's why we elect legislators.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Mr. Crisp (it's been a long time since anybody referred to anything I've written or spoken as "well considered").

It's worth remembering that this whole business about term limits has been driven by the Republican party, first after Franklin Roosevelt left the scene in 1945 (when the so-called "Do Nothing Congress" passed the Constitutional Amendment that turned what was then the two-term tradition started by Washington and finally repudiated by FDR into written law), then in the 1980s when Democratic Congresses stood in the way of the so-called "Reagan Revolution."

In the case of the presidential term limits, that came back to bite the GOP in the posterior as the only two presidents who would've won third terms were Eisenhower and Reagan (both Republicans). (Clinton might've gotten a third-term if he'd run, but it would have been close.)

The GOP, thinking they might never win back control of Congress, then went for term limits in that body. Some states, when passing term limit laws for state legislatures and executive offices -- such as Montana and here in Arizona -- also passed term limit laws for US Senators and Representatives. However, the Supreme Court struck down the Congressional part of those laws, saying that only a Constitutional Amendment (like the Presidential one) would pass muster.

Then, lo and behold, came the Miracle of 1994, when the GOP -- thanks to the Contract For America (or the Contract On America, depending upon which side of the aisle you might be sitting on) -- actually won control of the Congress (which they held on to for a dozen years). And despite the fact that a term limits amendment was front and center in the Contract, the subject was quietly set aside. (However, the legislature limits are still on the books).

One of the other reasons put forth for term limits was that it would bring new blood into the system. But it seems that all it has done is bring crackpots who started on school boards (creating havoc by wanting to use the Bible as a history textbook) up to the state legislature level (and in Mr. Lange's case, to a leadership position), without encouraging moderates in both parties to run for the offices available. So what we have are fire breathers on both sides, and nobody in the middle to be the voice of reason.

As for, I noticed that the fellow who is pushing the website and the idea behind it is being encouraged to run for Governor next time around. (The story is in the Missoula Independent this week.) As a Montana expat (I've been living here in Arizona -- an old HoHoKam word, meaning, "Hot enough for 'ya?" -- for 29 years now), I'm not one to tell folks back home what to do, but some kind of income tax rebate to full-time residents is in order (after a sizable amount is put in a "rainy-day fund" for when the boom goes bust -- as it always does). I'd just like to see the state of Arizona lower the sales tax -- which runs at nearly 10% in some AZ towns. (I'm considering moving back to Billings someday, and the last thing I want to see is the state enact a sales tax -- since all it means is one more tax to pay; the others aren't going to go down, I can assure you.)

Kirk Dooley
Mesa, AZ
(or Alta Mexico, if you will)