"There are none so blind as those who will not see." --

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Term Gaps: An Alternative to Term Limits

Politicians often become corrupt because those who have enjoyed a long stay in Washington have a knack for making friends: lobbyists, their wealthy financiers, CEO’s, etc., pretty much anyone who pays you more and makes your life more comfortable than your own constituents do. It is these well connected people that congresspersons come to truly represent.
Things wouldn’t be so bad if we could inject some fresh blood into the system from time to time. Unfortunately, because they have so many friends, incumbents have an edge in all campaign fronts. So, some reformers think the best way of fixing things is to limit the number of terms officials can serve. The problem with this solution is that being a Representative or Senator isn’t the only way corrupt politicians can serve their benefactors. Their backers can offer them lucrative careers working for them as laywers or lobbyists. Their constituents cannot offer them any similar retirement packadge. So if, e.g., you’re a congressman, and this is the last term you’re allowed to serve, what do you do: what’s in the best interests of your constituents, and not get much, if anything, in return, or do what helps out your wealthy buddies who can have you set for life? As often happens, the right choice is not necessarily the most prudent one.
My solution is to have term gaps rather than term limits. So let’s say Jones is a Senator, for which the normal term is six years. According to my proposed reform, Jones, once in office, wouldn’t be able to run for the term immediately following the one he is now serving. Once his term is up, and his succesor elected, then he will be able to run for the term following his succesor's. This way new, hopefully uncorrupted individuals have a chance to enter the system. But because it is always possible to run again, officials can’t do anything that is too detrimental to the interests of those they represent. Of course this system will also have its problems. For example, we will have to worry about adjusting the ratio of gaps to runnable terms; should it be one to one, one to two, one to three, etc.? Should candidates be allowed to run multiple times in a row before facing a gap? We must obviously face a tradeoff in trying to balance the tendency of officials to accumulate power against their constituents’ ever fading memories of their actions. Finally, we have to worry about incumbents of previous terms simply trading places with each other every gap, instead of being replaced by fresh individuals. But this too could be fixed by having “jubilee terms”, either for the entire congress or given states, where only politicians who have never held that office before could run. After the jubilee term, incumbents could run for that office again. So while I admit this term-gaps proposal has its share of difficulties, I can’t see how it would be worse than the current system, and at least it has the potential of being better.