Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The emerging 16-year term limit scam

Since the first state term limits were approved by voters in 1990, professional and wannabe professional politicians have tried to overturn them. This opposition has come in progressively devious waves.

The first and most successful counterattacks were legal and several referenda were shot down in courts or in a few cases by legislative action. Examples include Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts,Wyoming and Illinois. The biggest legal victory of the anti-term limits forces was the U.S. Supreme Court's split (5-4) U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton decision in 1995 which nullified the Congressional term limits laws passed by 21 states.

But the remaining 15 state term limits laws are now cast in stone having passed their legal tests. In these states, politicians have to ask voters -- not courts or legislatures -- to abolish or weaken the popular limits at the ballot box. This has proved much more difficult than finding friendly judges.

The first reactionary response was for simple abolition of the limits. As the limits starting taking effect, there was a wave of legislation launched in the term limits states to repeal them. This went nowhere, as voters learned to love term limits more over time, not less.

Next there was a wave of tricky referenda by politicians who "support" term limits but would like to see them "improved" by making them weaker, usually 12 years. Typically, these were written in a way to suggest that the referenda were establishing limits, as if for the first time, to trick a margin of voters into believing the referenda were pro-term limits! This too went nowhere, but it required mobilization by term limits activists to make sure the voters weren't being fooled. Examples include Arkansas, Montana, Maine and California.

This year, politicians in Arkansas, Missouri and Montana are launching the most deceitful strategy yet to free themselves from voter-approved term limits.

Professional politics is an industry. Like other industries, the participants -- parties, politicians, special interests -- compete, often fiercely. But as members of the same industry, they also have common incentives and interests. In the oil industry, for example, the companies compete in the marketplace, surely, but they still have common interests which unite them. Hence they have industry organizations with lobbyists to press their common demands and interests.

Politicians are no different. They compete at the ballot box. But when the dust settles, they talk, they share ideas, they plot, they scheme, they connive... You know.

Hence a new wave of anti-term limits bills are appearing in several states simultaneously with the most outrageous strategy yet. In states with 8-year term limits, politicians are suggesting that 8 years in each house is really a 16-year limit. So, it would be just a small tweak make the 16-year limit official, with the small alteration that politicians could 'spend' their 16 years in either house.

Of course, what this really means is a comfy 16-year stint in one house, as all politicians know the great majority of  reps cannot successfully make the jump to the other. Getting re-elected to one's own seat, on the other hand, is nearly automatic.

This is a scam. A version of it made it to the ballot in Arkansas and passed at least one house in Missouri and Montana last year. In Arkansas, they added additional cover, as they hid this teeny-weeny tweak inside an ethics bill of mild, pleasant-sounding restrictions on lobbyist gifts and contributions. Don't be surprised to see copycats pick up the 'ethics bill' gimmick as well.

So 2014 is the year of the 16-year term limits scam.

Nationwide, polls show the voters' support for term limits has not dimmed over time. The politicians can only succeed though obfuscation and deceit. That places a new burden on us as citizens to get the word out, but we have one big advantage: the simple power of the truth.