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.