Common Sense Legislation: Term Limits in Texas

Sen. Kevin Eltife and Rep. Lyle Larson have introduced term limit legislation for Texas statewide elected officials. What is fascinating to many observers, of course, is that both Larson and Eltife are Republicans introducing term limit legislation in a state Republican’s control. Their bill is not, they tell us, directed at Rick Perry, a man who casts himself as an independent, outside the beltway regular kind of guy, a task increasingly difficult to sell considering he was first elected to public office in 1985 and has now spent 13 years as Governor.

Admittedly, when term-limits where all the rage a few sessions ago, I wasn’t much of a supporter. Like our current (and seemingly always) governor, I argued term-limits already existed–we just called it voting. Additionally, I might have added in my more naive days, we need experienced congressional leaders who understand the law and the constitution.

However, times change and people get older (and I’m getting older, too–guess the lyrics and win a prize!) and I can honestly say since we can’t seem to vote the bums out, let’s legislate them into retirement. There is, it seems, a fine line between experienced and entrenched. Too many of our politicians have become less and less focused on doing what is right for the country at large and more and more focused on doing what is necessary to get re-elected. Their views and policies have become increasingly focused on the narrow, provincial, and localized concerns of a select few constituents and lobbyists who have access and power creating rigid silos of incompetence and independence. Some of this attitude is, admittedly, our fault. Instead of electing smart people and trusting them to do what’s best, we holler and yell for them to “represent” us by doing exactly what we would do (even if we don’t understand the issue). And cut spending everywhere but in our home town. (Or social security, medicare, and the military. Other than those programs, go save money.)

Of course, it’s worth noting that the current bill under consideration only applies to statewide elected officials. Senators and State Reps still hold immunity from actual voters under the bill.

And that is a shame. The reality is that our system of voting has become so corrupted by gerrymandered redistricting and insane unregulated campaign financing that our two esteemed politicians should include all elected officials, both state and national, to the same standards.

We could, of course, avoid legislating term-limits if we attacked the actual problems regarding elections. I’m not referring to voter fraud, especially considering that there is no evidence of large scale voter fraud (yes, Republicans, a majority of Americans did vote for the black guy. On purpose even.). If we were really serious about reforming our political climate, we would focus our attention on re-districting (for both state and national offices) and campaign finance reforms.

Our current method of re-districting, an act that takes place very ten years is so overly controlled and contrived by the political party in power that getting elected has become a defacto act for most politicians. Sure, it’s possible that an incumbent might avoid getting re-elected but it’s also possible the state of Texas will use the lottery proceeds to fund education. Instead, our ability to crunch numbers, coupled with archaic laws governing representation from the federal government, have allowed us to create districts that look like drunken amoebas (on crack) that merge like-minded voters (by economics, ethnicity, etc) into single districts with similar voting patterns. While that might allow a politician to report that 98% of my constituents support X, it also stifles political discourse.

Of course, there are a variety of ways we could change re-districting to create a more fair and more competitive electoral system: ask the person at your local newspaper how they determine routes for delivery; ask the city official who develops the garbage pickup; or ask the local pizza delivery people. Hell, ask a 10 year old and you would get a better system than we have now. Most importantly, we just need to start asking people outside politics, people with no vested interest in actually being elected, how to best fairly distribute voters in a given region. Simply put, we need to take the task of redistricting away from the very people who benefit from creating districts.

Likewise, campaign financing has run amok. Politicians amass “war-chests” large enough to feed a small African country (or re-fund our public schools). These accounts grow faster than my retirement account, creating a system where half of our national congressional representatives are millionaires. These accounts, at both the state and national level, allow politicians to reimburse themselves (or the state) for travel and expenses related to re-election. And we wonder why our politicians are always on the campaign path? These aren’t war chests, they are supplemental salary funds.

Like re-districting, the solutions are simpler than we might imagine–establish a maximum limit campaign spending. The last presidential election cost almost a billion dollars. The average Senate race spent 8.5 million dollars. While I realize those campaigns helped put a lot of people to work, I can’t imagine the money was distributed fairly. Instead, incumbent politicians, many with 8, 10, 12 year war-chests are able to bombard and dominate the news cycle and air waves. Arguing that voters have a choice or an ability to vote the bums out might sound like a positive, voter-friendly idea, but it also assumes that the playing field is level and that voters are truly empowered. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, so they say, and the politician able to dominate the conversation will get re-elected. We might even, gasp, develop viable third and fourth party candidates so that voters actually have a choice that extends beyond candidates fighting for status in national parties beholden to large donors who shape policy.

Regulating and reducing campaign spending should, one would hope, reduce the influence of outside, wealthy donors who currently hold a disproportionate sway over politics. We can create a more proportionate monetary contribution level so that my dollars become just as valuable as Bob Perry’s.  And, of course, we must regulate PACS. Yes, such regulation infringes on free speech, but, and this seems really important, we regulate free speech throughout America. When speech is harmful and destructive, the Supreme Court, that august body that is supposed to apolitical has allowed government intervention. I can’t imagine anything more destructive to America than a dysfunctional political system that creates politicians who are largely unaccountable to the people they are supposed to represent.

The cost of these increasingly corrupt systems is political leadership beholden to the few creating laws that impact the many. And that just doesn’t make any sense.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

3 Responses to Common Sense Legislation: Term Limits in Texas

  1. sandboxwalls says:

    You may have missed the main point of gerrymandering. The trick isn’t to get a district where 98% agree. The trick is to rig the election so a majority in the district will safely and reliably vote the way they are supposed to vote. Thus, a minority of voters are rendered powerless. GIS software has allowed a slimmer majority to overrule an ever larger minority. The real problem is gerrymandering. Curing the symptom instead of the problem with term limits helps, but has a side effect: Naive newbies in office that are easy prey to lobbyist and under the thumb of legislature rules that reserve committee power to the permanent incumbants.

  2. Joyce says:

    I may be one of the few who are not in favor of term limits for Congressional seats. It seems to me that politicians who do well enough at their job to get re-elected should stay put. I also fail to follow the logic that implies that upon completion of the second term, a politician becomes corrupt. In any other field, a seasoned employee brings institutional knowledge that can only be earned with time on the job, and the Congress is a very complex organization. I’ve heard it said that if you think you understand how it all works, you’re missing something.

    Oh, and Fleetwood Mac, Landslide.

    • John Wegner says:

      I don’t necessarily disagree and willingly admit that term limits will remove some good legislators who are serious and dedicated. In an ideal world, we would have a mix of seasoned, quality politicians and we would vote out the ones who don’t do their jobs. The problem, though, is that we have no real mechanism to replace those who have a stranglehold on public office. Maybe I’m just increasingly jaded because I watch more and more incumbents in Texas get re-elected regardless of the quality of their work. In other words, I don’t think, at least in Texas, the quality of work is related to re-election for many of our officials. I think we then see stagnation because there is no real turnover. When we do have elections, we are too often choosing between the devil we know and the devil we don’t know. We vote, in essence, for the lesser of two bad options. (I’m wearing my cynicism on my sleeve today.)

      Your prize, by the way, is TBA. Thanks for the comment.

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