Thursday, August 29, 2013

Term limits top the list of Levin's 'Liberty Amendments'

Talk show host and lawyer Mark Levin says at one time he opposed amending the U.S. Constitution via the state convention process. But now his skepticism has turned to enthusiasm and in his new book, The Liberty Amendments, he lays out 11 suggested amendments aimed at "preserving the civil society from the growing authoritarianism of a federal Leviathan" and urges states to pursue them.

Number one on the list: Congressional term limits. Number three: Supreme Court term limits. And, number nine: A change in the way amendments are approved that avoids Congress altogether -- and would likely pave the way for Congressional term limits.

Levin starts off with background on the amendment process and addresses a fear many term limits supporters have expressed about amending the constitution via a convention called by three fourths of the states.

Levin suggests concerns about a runaway convention are unfounded: "The text of Article V makes clear there is a serious check in place. Whether the product of Congress or a convention, a proposed amendment has no effect at all unless 'ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states...' This should extinguish anxiety that the state convention process could hijack the Constitution."

"In Washington and most political capitals, TIME in office = POWER" -- Mark Levin

The current term limits bills in Congress (introduced by Rep. Matt Salmon in the House and David Vitter and Rand Paul in the Senate) take the other of two paths offered in Article V, a vote in the Congress followed by ratification by the states.

In chapter two, Levin lays out a concise and persuasive case for Congressional term limits, citing the lack of rotation, gerrymandering, power of the incumbency, special interest money and seniority. The bottom line, he says, is "in Washington and most political capitals TIME in office = POWER." He calls for a limit of 12 years maximum in the Congress which can be split between houses.

Interestingly Levin also calls for 12-year Supreme Court limits. Here he cites the unexpected longevity of modern justices and the increased power they wield. Most persuasively, he points to the simple fact that a lifetime position today can -- and does -- entrench the "mentally impaired, venal and even racist" who may have once been vigorous contributors to the court. Due to uncompetitive elections and the lack of turnover in Congress, he could have noted that is phenomenon is not uncommon there either.

Less persuasive is Levin's call -- as part of the same amendment -- to permit Congressional overrides of Supreme Court decisions, such as if the Court determines a Congressional law is unconstitutional.

In chapter 9, Levin calls for the ability for states to directly amend the Constitution. If two-thirds (not three fourths) of the states approve the exact same amendment within a six year period, it would become part of the Constitution. No convention. No Congress.

As he puts it, "there is no persuasive reason the states need to administratively organize their amendment efforts through Congress. In fact, among the reasons states may be moved to act is precisely because of conflicts or disagreements with Congress."

No kidding. How about the conflict of interest involved in the Congress shepherding -- or, more accurately, torpedoing -- an amendment to limit the terms of the Congress? This amendment would permit states to make an end run around Congress.

Other amendments offered in the book include a tax cap (15 percent of income), a balanced budget amendment, national voter ID requirements and explicit private property protections. Nearly all are thoughtful and reasonable, but many are also politically fanciful currently.

But the book is not simply indulgence in political fantasy. It is a thought experiment that provokes serious consideration of our history, foundational law and the nature of our political system. It is particularly valuable for those who are active in the effort to pass Congressional term limits via a Constitutional amendment. Read it.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Comic offers cosmic redefinition of machine politics

Readers of this blog know of my interest in cultural manifestations of term limits as well as the political ones. Usually these show up in novels.

Our sighting today is a comic book -- er, I mean graphic novel -- published by DC Comics under its Wildstrom imprint. Ex Machina is a series that ran from 2004-2010 and tells the story of Mitchell Hundred, formerly a superhero called the Great Machine and currently the mayor of New York. Gathered into a 10-volume book format, the final edition is titled, that's right, Term Limits.

This is a well-written (Brian K. Vaughan) and illustrated (Tony Harris) series that is infused with informed politics and avoids clumsy advocacy. The title refers not so much to the reform championed by this blog, but instead to the final days of  Mitchell Hundred in office.

It is also a sly slap to real world Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had the New York City council nullify voter-approved term limits to stay in office for a third term. Hundred, by contrast, lives up to a self-imposed term limit and is voluntarily relinquishing office.
Brian K. Vaughan
Vaughan is quoted by Wikipedia as saying the comic was "born out of my anger with what passes for our current political leadership on both sides of the aisle."

But don't worry, the comic also includes people with super powers, aliens who wish to destroy all human life on earth and ray guns that open portals to hell. It is first and foremost a comic and a good one.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

In gay marriage decision, did Supremes inadvertently empower pols?

Even those who cheered the result of the U.S. Supreme Court's June decision regarding gay marriage should be concerned about how the court reached it.

Recall that in 2008 California voters passed Proposition 8 which banned gay marriage in that state. In 2010, a district court ruled the amendment unconstitutional. Normally, the state would appeal on behalf of its voter-approved law, but in this case California's governor and attorney general agreed with the district court decision and refused to appeal.

Prop. 8 supporters did their day in court, though. The California Supreme Court allowed them to make their case in federal court instead. But when the case made its way to the Supreme Court, the court ruled that the Prop. 8 supporters had no standing and tossed it out.

So what, you ask? This: The court appears to have handed a veto power over initiatives they don't like by refusing to defend them in court. So opponents can get a friendly judge and it's game over for voters.

California voters aren't outraged about this as the consensus on gay marriage has shifted since the original vote five years ago. But technically the Supreme Court didn't even rule on this issue. The issue was standing, and the voters didn't have it.

The purpose of the initiative process is to provide citizens with a way to make an end run around politicians when they are not doing the people's business. This is something the term limits movement has made the most of. Rarely do legislatures adopt term limits; more often they pull out all stops in opposing them.

Some fear the June decision gives politicians one more weapon against citizens who want to limit their power. Stay tuned.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Politicians fight term limits with ... Sanctioned Murder?

When a movement to limit terms springs up, politicians and special interests resort to nearly every trick in the book to stop it. This usually involves sending out teams of lawyers.

A new mystery thriller, Sanctioned Murder by Glenn Trust, tells the story of a threatened incumbency in Georgia sending out teams of hit men.

When the murders start occuring, the investigators -- a team of police officers and detectives including George Mackey, the hero of Trust's first novel -- can't connect the dots. There is a clearly a political twist, but the victims seem to be of different parties, wildly different views and cultural backgrounds. They know also that there is interest high up, as the governor's officer creates a task force early on to, it seems, monitor the investigation more than assist it.

As the subtitle of the book (The Term Limits Conspiracy) hints, the investigators find the connection and then the clues keep leading them higher and deeper into the establishment.

Sanctioned Murder is another of the growing genre of term limits thrillers (let's just pretend this exists, OK?) which includes Vince Flynn's Term Limits and Erne Lewis' An Act of Self Defense.

It is an easy read, a page-turner with lots of gunplay. However, I am not sure I am comfortable with the fate of the editor of the term limits blog at the center of the conspiracy. I'll try not to take it personally.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

There's still time to save Arkansas GOP from term limits debacle

As reported earlier, the anti-term limits measure to appear on the Arkansas ballot in 2014 would appear to a boon to Republicans who aim to protect their incumbents and solidify the GOP's state legislative majority. No doubt this will be used as a selling point to the party's hyper-partisans.

This is short-sighted. Thoughtful Arkansas Republicans should call for their leaders to take this awful measure off the ballot while there is still time.  It is likely this measure will backfire on the party, hurting fundraising and morale going into the 2014 elections, reducing the chances of achieving important policy goals and setting the party up for a difficult future.

Straining party resources

Term limits are popular with large majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents. But it is no secret that fundraising to defend term limits in Arkansas -- where the movement to impose term limits originally had a GOP pedigree -- will disproportionately come from one side of the aisle. Plus, the bulk of the volunteers who work to save the popular voter-approved term limits will skew towards the GOP. Hence, money and volunteers hours will be lost to other GOP campaigns in order to battle a GOP initiative.

As the campaign to protect term limits picks up steam and party regulars get invested in it, there will necessarily be a dampening of enthusiasm for the party leaders who -- as a group -- championed this measure. How could it be otherwise?

Weakening the brand

The GOP bills itself as the state's fiscally conservative party. The party attracts fiscal conservatives to run for office and these candidates must talk the talk to primary voters and contributors if they want to advance.

As illustrated in a famous Cato Institute study at the Congressional level, Republicans tend to arrive at the capitol and more or less live up to their fiscal conservative rhetoric for a while. But after 6, 7, 8 years their spending ramps up and soon they are no longer distinguishable from the veteran spenders.

There is every reason to expect that tenured Republican legislators as a group -- who will be able to run as incumbents for their own seats for 16 years straight instead of today's six or eight -- will stray further from the fiscally conservative path.

Term limits cut both ways

Term limits cut both ways. Protecting today's incumbents from electoral competition will surely help maintain the Republican majority longer -- but not forever. But some day down the line the shoe will be on the other foot and Republicans will be in the minority in a system rigged in favor of the incumbent majority.

It is not too late to remove the measure from the 2014 ballot. Indeed, when the GOP-dominated Florida legislature voted to put a term limits attack on the ballot in 2006, they heard from their base and voted to take the measure off the ballot just in time.

The same can happen in Arkansas, and it should.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Arkansas GOP incumbents want to lock the door behind them

After Contract With America author U.S. Rep. Dick Armey (R-TX) got comfortable with his new Republican majority in the House in 1994, he famously said that "if we Republicans can straighten out the House . . . then I think maybe the nation's desire for term limits will be diminished."

In other words, now that we're in power, we don't need term limits anymore.

This is the sentiment being echoed today in Arkansas, where term limits opened elections to competition and turnover leading to the historic upending of Democratic dominance in the state legislature. Now that the door has been opened and the Republicans walked in -- culminating in 2012 with the first GOP majority in both chambers since reconstruction -- they want to shut the door behind them and lock it. Entrenched incumbency all of a sudden sounds mighty attractive.

Their scheme to get it is the anti-term limits amendment, titled the "Elected Officials Ethics, Transparency and Financial Reform Amendment," that will appear on the statewide 2014 ballot.

By the early 1990s, legislative turnover in the legislature had become among the lowest in the nation, incumbents had became statistically unbeatable and hence the legislature became stagnant, dominated by its senior class. Even as the state changed over time, the legislature didn't.

But then genuine term limits were put on the ballot by citizens via the initiative process, winning with 60 percent in 1992 and again by 70 percent in 2004. As the limits set in, pent-up demographic changes were refected at the ballot box For example, there was a pop in the number of women in the legislature. More to our point here, Republicans now had the opportunity to run for lots of open seats in competitive elections -- and they started winning them.

Today, when and if the tide turns back toward the Democrats, we can expect this will be reflected at the ballot box too. But the new anti-term limits amendment would retard the will of the people.

The essence of the amendment is to change the House term limit from six years to 16 and the Senate term limit from eight to 16, with a maximum service in the legislature of 16 years between the two. This is a return to the old regime where incumbents can -- and therefore nearly always will -- run for the same seat for over a decade and a half with all the overwhelming advantages of an incumbent running for his or her own seat.

It should not be too surprising that the amendment was also supported by Democratic incumbents who put their own political aspirations ahead of the interests of the citizenry and their own party. Truly, in the case of term limits there are two distinct opposing parties but they aren't Democrat versus Republican, they are people versus power.  Polls reflect this, with large majorities of Democrats and Republicans (and independents) supporting term limits.

Arkansas voters of all parties need to defeat this attempt by incumbent politicians to rig the system in their favor. Let's get to work.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Arkansas 'reform' just an obscurantist attack on term limits

Whereas first you don't succeed, lie lie again. That's the motto of the Arkansas state legislature, which is trying for the second time to effectively nullify the state's voter-approved term limits. This time they are stooping to obfuscation and deception get the job done.
Some background: By the early 1990s, legislative turnover in the legislature had become among the lowest in the nation, incumbents had became statistically unbeatable and hence the legislature became stagnant, dominated by its senior class and the special interests that supported them. The initial term limits measure was put on the ballot by citizens via the initiative process, winning with 60 percent in 1992.

The popularity of the term limits grew significantly over time. In 2004, when legislators tried to weaken the limits, 70 percent of the voters rebuffed them.

Today, Arkansas is a model for other states, with a part-time legislature meeting every other year, reasonable compensation and genuine term limits. According to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which annually compares states according to a fixed list of economic variables, Arkansas routinely ranks in the top half or even quartile of its peers.

That's fine for the citizenry, but less so for self-interested legislators who want sail back into office in uncompetitive elections for perpetuity. Legislators learned the hard way Arkansans are not going to gut term limits in an honest vote. So, this year, they voted to place the, ahem, Elected Officials Ethics, Transparency and Financial Reform Amendment on the ballot in 2014.

Notice this lofty title doesn't even mention the central point of the the bill, a provision to gut term limits by permitting legislators to spend 16 years in the House or Senate or some combination of the two. Currently, legislators are limited to six years in the House and eight in the Senate.

The amendment contains a bunch of add-ons -- some with merit and some without -- but together are intended only to bury the attack on term limits in a friendly-sounding 'reform' package.

Oh well, proponents say, term limits are being deemphasized because the popular term limits are only being tweaked a teeny-weeny bit. Currently, a legislator is permitted to serve six years in the House and then eight in the Senate for a total of 14 years. The new limit would be 16 so this is only an additional two years. Friendly pundits are already pooh-poohing this change as almost an afterthought.

But this an intentional deception. The new House term limit would now be 16 years, not six. The new term limit in the Senate will be 16 years, not eight. Today, the jump from one chamber to the other requires a competitive election in which term-limited candidate may be facing another term-limited candidate in a competitive election. This is what politicians are desperate to avoid. This is the nugget hidden in this basket of smoke.

History and current polling suggest voters are unlikely to approve this measure if they are aware of its true purpose. The pols, lobbyists and friendly press will aim to obscure. Our job must be to educate. If we do our job, the voters will take care of the rest.


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Does youthful energy drive better outcomes?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Argentine voters foil attack on presidential term limits

It’s not only here. Voters internationally love term limits and resent self-interested attempts of would-be tyrants to circumvent them.

The latest example: Voters in Argentina last weekend gave a resounding thumbs down to President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her plans to keep power by abolishing presidential term limits.

In the face of deteriorating economic conditions, Fernandez made her bid for 'consitutional reform' last year with all the usual pitches of professional politicians, including the need for continuity and her irreplaceable wisdom and experience.

The people weren’t fooled. In November 2012, a demonstration outside the pink presidential palace at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets. Their grievances were legion, but the unifying theme was opposition to the president’s arrogant grasp for power in what should be – and will be – her last two years in office.

Then, in the Aug. 11 primary elections, Fernandez's ruling party garnered only 26 percent of the nationwide vote. This is less than half of the percentage with which she was re-elected two years ago and five points less than her party's showing in the last mid-term elections. It is believed the results end any hopes of nixing constitutional term limits before the October general elections.

But the lust for power is a compulsion that demands obedience. “We're going to keep deepening this transformation, because it's our obligation," Fernandez said at a post-election rally.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Americans tell pollsters: Fire the entire Congress!

It is often noted that even though the vast majority of voters support term limits, they will also reelect their own representative over and over and over again.
This is less of a contradiction than it may appear on first glance.  Term limits are an institutional reform that affects the legislative bodies’ makeup and incentives and also who ultimately appears on ballots. That is very different than choosing between two or three candidates to fill a public post in particular election.
When voting to fill a post, voters look at the choices and pick the best one – or, in most cases, the least bad one.  In many cases, that may be the incumbent. After all, the odds are high the opponent is not a serious one.  In an environment where incumbents win their own seat in general elections some 95% of the time, serious goal-oriented people rarely run for office against them.
Hence, either incumbents go unopposed or they attract unqualified, even if well-meaning, opponents. These opponents are usually underfunded and are not even backed by their own political party. After all, with scarce resources, why would a party spend real money on unwinnable seats?
Meanwhile, the incumbent is a statistical sure thing and a great investment for special interest money and muscle.
Gerrymandering also plays a role.  In safe seats where one party dominates, the likelihood is high that voters will simply pull the lever for their party’s nominee.
Voters seem to understand this better than pundits.  In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal on July17-21, voters were asked:

"If there were a place on your ballot that allowed you to vote to defeat and replace every single member of Congress, including your own representative, would you do this, or not?"

57% said ‘yes.'
Well, there isn’t such a place on the ballot. Instead, voters are asked to choose from a list of candidates – chosen through a flawed process skewed towards the incumbency – and they hold their noses and pull the lever once again. The old power brokers return to office and nothing ever changes. How could it?
No, the voters don’t love their incumbents. The same poll showed 83 percent of voters disapprove of Congress, a new record. Voters want competitive elections and rotation in office. They want term limits.