At a recent forum, 8 of the 9 candidates for DC Council at-large endorsed legislative term limits. This is a bad idea.
It’s true that DC’s voters did institute term limits, but then the Council simply overturned the referendum. That’s a shame. But it’s also a shame that voters went for this shortsighted policy.
Term limits are generally popular, because most people generally think that elected representatives are all crooks and need to be thrown out of office. There are definitely some DC Councilmembers I’d love to throw out of office. But forcing it is not the answer. I know, because I’ve lived in cities with legislative term limits, and it’s a problem.
Take New York. The Council (and Mayor) are limited to 2 terms, until they granted themselves a 3rd term in the last election cycle. One of the arguments behind term limits is that instead of raising money and pleasing constituencies to win reelection year after year, legislators can try to do what’s best for the city.
That’s a nice idea, but not what happens. Instead, the legislators spend much of the time, especially in their 2nd term, worrying about their next job. Where’s that next job? Among the leading contenders are often organizations that have business before the city and would hire them as lobbyists.
In most industries, each job trains you for the next. Legislators build up skill at legislating, and government connections. If legislating suddenly becomes forbidden as a job, then those government connections are what’s left.
When they’re running for reelection, a politician wants two things: approval from citizens (votes) and money for campaign activities (campaign contributions). If reelection is off the table, unless a higher office is available, which is only an option for relatively few, there’s nothing they want any more from the people. There’s still plenty they want from the interest groups that have enough money to hire them later on.
Supporters of term limits also say that bringing in new people means fresh blood and new ideas. It does. But it also means nobody knows what they’re doing. Legislators generally take almost a whole term to really figure out how to get things done. In New York, the Council spends a lot of time being fairly ineffective. So many officials are new, the staff is new, they don’t understand all the issues that deeply, they don’t know the politics, and they don’t know each other.
It’s really hard for any legislature to stand up effectively to an executive, since there’s just one mayor and a lot of councilmembers. At least if the legislators are experienced, they know how to do so. We saw a lot of that last session, when the DC Council did sometimes stand up effectively to Mayor Fenty when necessary.
Studies have also found that lobbyists end up with more influence. That’s because when legislators are really new, they have to learn about the issues, and it’s easiest to learn from those who are paid to come into their office and explain things. It’s a lot harder to get input from thousands of residents. Over time, a legislator does.
Instituting term limits would mean we would have a weak council with members who quickly start to care more about their next job than doing the job, and others who are trying to make headlines as fast as possible to set up for another run for higher office.
That’s not good for DC.