Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Court strikes down petition law; OK3 vindicated

On Dec. 18, a unanimous 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down as unconstitutional Oklahoma’s law that bans non-residents from circulating petitions to place proposed laws and constitutional amendments on the ballot.

The law was challenged by a group known as Yes on Term Limits Inc. which wants to circulate petitions to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot to limit terms of state officials.

This is a victory also for Paul Jacob and the Oklahoma 3, who were being prosecuted on felony charges under this law, in spite of the fact that they were following the law as explained to them by state officials. The real crime was pushing a tax-and-spending limitation amendment which -- like term limitation -- is anathema to the political establishment.

Attorney General Drew Edmondson has not officially withdrawn his legal attack against the OK3 and also vowed to appeal the decision. Of course he will. Authoritarians have always objected to the citizens' right to petition for redress of grievances. That's why it had to be singled out for inclusion in the first amendment.

"It appears the Oklahoma Three received an early Christmas present and Edmondson got his well-deserved chunk of coal," said Oklahoma State Senator Randy Brogdon. "Tis the season to do the right thing. Hopefully Edmondson will withdraw any further lawsuits."

Friday, December 19, 2008

Sen. Brownback to uphold term limits pledge

Back in 1998, Sen. Sam Brownback -- an advocate of term limits -- put pen to paper and pledged to serve only two full terms in the U.S. Senate and then step aside to permit another Kansan to take the seat. On Thursday, he officially announced his intention to honor his pledge.

In a perfect world, this would be an unremarkable event: A politician makes an unambiguous promise and then keeps it. But in our world, where politicians face enormous temptations and pressure to distance themselves from such promises, this simple act of integrity is worthy of special note.

For this reason, I flew up from my home in South Florida (72 degrees, sun) to East Kansas (16 degrees, ice) to assist in making the announcement. Together we held joint press conferences in Olathe, Topeka and Wichita on Thursday.

For the Topeka Capital Journal and Kansas City Star's take on it, see http://cjonline.com/stories/121908/loc_369256809.shtml and http://www.kansascity.com/637/story/943772.html.

Sen. Brownback first took the seat in 1996, in a special election to fill out then-Sen. Bob Dole's term when Dole ran for president. Since then, Sen. Brownback won his two subsequent elections with increasing margins and he continues to enjoy high approval ratings today. And yet, at 52 -- a relative babe in the Senate where the average age exceeds 60 -- he is retiring from the senate to start a new chapter of his life.

In doing this, Sen. Brownback joins an elite crowd of politicians who have signed the U.S. Term Limits pledge and then kept their word. Sen. Jim DeMint, Sen. Tom Coburn and South Carolina Mark Sanford are all pledge honorers who moved on to other offices.

Many other politicians have reneged on their promises. Tough luck for them: while several pledge breakers have continued to retain their current seats, none have ever won higher office.

“As fellow Kansans know, your word is your bond,” Sen. Brownback said. “If a man breaks his word, it breaks the man.”

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Vince Flynn's term limits of a very different kind

I had been intrigued by the title for some time, but I finally picked up and read the novel Term Limits by Vince Flynn (Simon & Schuster, 1997).

In this fast-paced political action thriller on the Tom Clancy mold, a secret group of American ex-commandos publish a list of demands and start assassinating Congress members who defy them. Their demands are of a sort that the Club for Growth might make, sans sniper fire, such as reducing spending, freezing taxes, balancing the budget and -- my favorite -- using zero-based budgeting. Ha!

If those sound like far-fetched terrorist demands, just wait until you find out how a corrupt White House decides to fight back. By the end of the book, you will find yourself thinking the terrorists are the good guys, particularly when they issue challenges like this one: "Do not test us again or we will be forced to impose more term limits."

Needless to say, the term limits of the title are not the same kind promoted by this blog. But that's not to say there were no real-world political lessons in this book. In fact, Flynn surely understands and supports term limits of a more traditional sort. Consider this exchange between a lobbyist and a young freshman Congressman:

"[Rep.] O'Rourke, if you vote no on the president's budget, the American Farmers Association will be left with no other choice than to support your opponent next year." O'Rourke shook his head and said, "Nice try, but I'm not running for a second term."

Not only does he see how term limits encourage independent thinking, but in this description of a career politician -- and assassins' target -- he also clearly sees how tenure corrupts over time:

For the last thirty-four years he'd survived scandal after scandal and hung on to that seat like a screaming child clutching his favorite toy. Fitzgerald had been a politician his entire adult life, and he knew nothing else. He'd grown numb to the day-to-day dealings of the nation's capital. The forty-plus years of lying, deceit, deal cutting, career trashing and partisan politics had been so ingrained in Fitzgerald that he not only thought his behavior was acceptable, he truly believed it was the only way to do business.

At one point, fiction and fact merge when a journalist announces.

"The assassinations have thust into the spotlight some reforms that the American people have endorsed for some time. The idea of term limits has an approval rating of almost 90 percent."

In sum, Term Limits is guilty-pleasure reading for frustrated fiscal conservatives who like action movies. If that describes you, you may wish to pick up the paperback version of this New York Times bestseller, still in print.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Illinois' Quinn a mighty reformer

Most likely Gov. Rod Blagojevich will be impeached or will voluntarily resign over his attempted sale of Sen. Barack Obama's now-empty Senate seat, but either way Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn is likely to be the next governor of Illinois.

Who is Pat Quinn?

Lt. Gov. Quinn has held the #2 spot in Illinois for the last six years and is, oddly, an opponent of the governor and corrupt machine politics generally. This is possible because, in Illinois, the candidates for the governor and lieutenant governor positions run on the same ticket in the general election as a team, but they are chosen separately in the primaries.

Although of the same party, Quinn -- a genuine populist reformer -- cuts a strikingly different political profile than the corrupt careerist Blagojevich.

In the 1970s Quinn, then a tax attorney, led an effort to give the state's voters the citizen initiative. In 1994, he led an effort to limit the terms of legislators to eight years in office, his "Eight is Enough" initiative. He collected the necessary signatures, but the Illinois Supreme Court wouldn't let it appear on the ballot.

Undaunted, Quinn launched a 2008 effort to give Illinois voters the right of recall. Perhaps learning from his term limits experience, he called for a vote on a state constitutional convention to take up this issue. A Cook County Circuit Judge tossed this latest reform measure off the ballot.

"In a state that has more than its share of crooks and people who go along to get along, Pat Quinn stands out as someone who takes on the powers-that-be," Howie Rich, chairman of U.S. Term Limits, told the Wall Street Journal.

The 1967 Bob Dylan song The Mighty Quinn tells the nursery rhyme-like story of the arrival in town of the Eskimo Quinn, who brings great and positive change. Since the lieutenant governor has arrived on the political scene he has surely made an honest effort to do that. Surely the Illinois power brokers are uncomfortable with his likely and imminent promotion. What will he try next?

"You'll not see nothing like the mighty Quinn," sang Dylan. Let's hope he's right.

Blagojevich's third term

Up until last week, Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D-IL) was hinting he was going to run for a third term in the governor's office, but now he's more likely to get a term in prison.

That's one kind of term limit. But the more traditional term limitations also contribute to cleaner and more transparent government in several ways.

First, regular rotation in office necessarily widens the circle of those with an intimate knowledge of the office. With an entrenched incumbency, either in the executive or legislative branches, this knowledge as well as institutional memory is more closely held. Rotation disperses it and makes it easier for outsiders to peer in and blow the whistle when necessary.

Second, the hubris that leads to corruption is a function of tenure. In most cases corrupt politicians were not originally elected, perhaps decades ago, with the hubris and sense of entitlement that leads to their ultimate self destruction. Maybe they were even led to run for office for public spirited reasons. Ah, but that was long ago...

Ronald Reagan put it better when he'd say that candidates look at Washington and see a cesspool, but after a while in office they start seeing a hot tub.

Third, shortened tenure reduces the opportunity for corruption. Even a politician with a flawed character requires an opportunity for the corruption to manifest itself. Tenure offers the knowledge and opportunity necessary. Mixed with the arrogance of office, born partly of tenure, many politicians give in to temptation.

Gov. Blagojevich was caught; many are not. It behooves us build our public institutions in ways that retard such behaviors across the board. After all, if the FBI had not been listening to his phone calls, the governor could potentially have been seated for a third term, more corrupt and more powerful than ever.

Friday, December 5, 2008

95% of House incumbents win in 2008

Ah, change. In the 2006 elections, the Democrats took the Congress. In 2008, they expanded their gains in the Congress and took the presidency. At the headline level, certainly, we got change in bold, 60-point type.

But let's read further into the story. It turns out that the change occured only at the margins -- in open seats, where both parties put up serious candidates, threw their weight behind them and then sweated while the voters exercised their power to choose.

In the bulk of the races, on the other hand, incumbents nearly always won as they nearly always do. In 2006, 94% of House incumbents won; in 2008, 94.8% of House incumbents won.

You might ask, how can this be? But a better question is, how could this not be? An incumbent benefits from numerous advantages, the largest of which is probably the automatic support of special interests. This overwhelming lead discourages serious candidates from running and encourages parties to commit their limited resources elsewhere. In most cases, incumbents face underfunded challengers without serious party support, many of whom are simply gadflys.

Or, incumbents go unchallenged and the election is canceled altogether. Elections were canceled in 56 House districts this year.

Change, then, is made possible by open and competitive elections -- something that term limits mandate in every district at least once every eight years.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Chavez tries to topple term limits -- otra vez

Hugo Chavez is an ambitious man. The Fidel Castro acolyte is centralizing power in democratic Venezuela through censorship and nationalization as part of his 'Bolivarian socialist revolution' which he apparently aims to lead, caudillo-style, indefinitely.

But there is one thing standing in his way: term limits.

According to the Venezuelan constitution, Chavez' second and last six-year term will expire in 2013. He tried to overturn this pesky limit on his power in December 2007, but was rebuffed at the ballot box.

This week he called on supporters to gear up for yet another referendum. At least he is going back to the people; a month or so ago in New York City voters were not so lucky.

"We're going to achieve it," Chavez told supporters in Caracas last Sunday. "We're going to demonstrate who rules in Venezuela." Then the head of state and part-time recording artist sang out "Uh, ah, Chavez no se va." That is, "Chavez is not going."

We'll see. With mixed results in November's regional elections, inflation topping 30 percent and a plunging price of oil, his time as a popular leader may be running out. If democracy in Venezuela outlives Chavez, term limits may turn out to be the decisive factor.