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The State : How Not to Get Even With Politicians--Limiting Our Sovereignty : Los Angeles: Term limits have a certain surface appeal, but they are not an answer for government gridlock. Our forefathers knew best.

April 04, 1993|Xandra Kayden | Xandra Kayden is a visiting scholar at the Center for Politics and Policy at Claremont Graduate School and author of "Surviving Power" (Free Press).

Los Angeles voters may be on the verge of surrendering a measure of their sovereignty. Worse, they seem resigned to it, if the absence of public debate is an indicator.

Two nearly identical measures on this month's ballot would diminish voter choice. One, authored and paid for by mayoral candidate Richard Riordan, would limit every elected city official to two terms. The other, written by the City Council, would phase in a two-term limit, beginning with those elected this year. Neither is healthy for the city's politics.

To be sure, arguments for imposing local term limits have a certain surface appeal. City officials typically stay in office longer than members of Congress and state legislators. Some remain for decades. The need for a mechanism that would ensure a transfusion of new political blood seems all-too obvious.

Yet, the term-limit debate involves at least three less obvious issues that, when examined, severely weaken the case for restricting a politician's time in office.

* Rotation. The idea of taking turns in office goes back to the Greeks. The willingness of an elected official to give up power and return to the farm was a measure of the mature political society.

In our own history, the idea of rotation was contained in the Articles of Confederation, the political system that preceded the Constitution. The Articles required that members of Congress, who were appointed by their respective state legislatures, be rotated. Such term limits were considered a protection for the states, assuring them that no state had an advantage in experience or contacts. It should also be noted that taking one's turn in public life was a reasonable option for our forefathers, who were members of a wealthy, educated elite. Still, term limits were excluded from the Constitution after vehement debate, because the right to freely choose our representatives is its cornerstone.

* Professionalism . There is the notion that we should be ruled by people like ourselves, by people who would make the choices we make. But successfully holding power today requires learning about policy issues, learning how to build consensus, learning the rules of the game and, most of all, learning whom to trust and how to trust them. These are not skills that flow naturally from either rotation or amateurism.

What's really at work here? Longtime officeholders, of course, do lose, but incumbency is extraordinarily powerful and rarely is an incumbent defeated by a challenger. One reason is that we tend to like the people we elect, even if we don't like the aggregate effect. We like them because they have helped us in the past, or helped someone we know. It is just that, collectively, we have competing interests and a structure of government that makes decision-making difficult. Whether or not routinely replacing politicians would change this is open to question.

* Distribution of power . If L.A. voters make term limits law, the city bureaucracy and City Hall lobbyists will be the likely winners, because elected officials, lacking the skills and knowledge that come with time spent in office, will be impotent against them. Another possibility is that power will shift to city commissioners who, though appointed by the mayor, carry out their duties in a complex weave of alliances that sustains the political system. A third possibility is that nothing will change, because the problem is the structure of government, not its inhabitants.

UC Irvine political scientist Mark Petracca studied the effects of term limits in several cities in Orange County. He concluded that they can increase the power of city managers, but not the administrative staff; do not affect the number of candidates vying for office, and do not attract different kinds of people to politics. In short, term limits do not appreciably upset the status quo.

What might term limits mean for Los Angeles? It is difficult to see how they would strengthen the mayor's power. Furthermore, if your council member will be out of a job--no matter what--after the second election, he or she might pay less attention to constituent needs. And given the time it now takes to get anything done under the City Charter, term limits might slow things down even more--if that's imaginable.

There are many other arguments against term limits, most significantly, that we already have a check on elected officials--the election at the end of every term. Moreover, Los Angeles already has a mechanism to make city elections more competitive--public financing, which gives challengers a chance at gaining minimal name recognition. Without name recognition, a challenger doesn't stand a chance. With it, there is a reasonable prospect for choice. And choice, after all, is what elections should be about.

If L.A. voters impose term limits, they are limiting their own freedom. If they don't like the incumbents, the more democratic way is to vote them out of office, not vote themselves out of the process.

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