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.