In the ’80s, something troubling happened to American democracy. Politicians convinced us that “government isn’t the solution; government is the problem” — an all-too-conventional wisdom that has had devastating consequences for effective government at all levels in the intervening 20 years.
One of the worst of these consequences is term limits.
The idea behind term limits is simple — too simple: If we keep injecting new blood into our public offices, we will avoid “career politicians” and stagnant politics by keeping our officials focused on our interests. Nice theory — a perfect theory, in fact, for a society used to quick-fix solutions to complicated problems. But if our democracy is anything, it’s a complicated problem.
Term limits do far more harm than good. In the first instance, they reinforce a dangerous idea that still has surprising hold among our citizenry — that mechanical solutions can solve what our slow-moving democratic institutions cannot. This is wrong and wrong-headed. Freshness, energy and accountability don’t come by means of rotating our state and local representatives in and out office. They come from the dedication and involvement of “we the people.”
If we want accountability in government, we must ensure it through our own efforts — by going to town meetings, by meeting with our leaders and by organizing protests, call-ins and letter-writing campaigns. Term limits buy into the nonsense — perpetrated by talk-radio gadflies and anti-government types — that somehow our representatives are merely detached bureaucrats working for some kind of monolithic “big government.”
In truth, our representatives, particularly at the local and state level, are our friends, neighbors and fellow citizens. Trusting them and holding them accountable by force of our tireless interest and involvement is the relationship on which our democratic republic is predicated.
Secondly, term limits work counter to serving the public by depriving it of seasoned, experienced leadership and institutional memory. Just when a representative figures out how to navigate the maze of local or state government, we reward that individual by kicking him or her out of office. Whatever we gain in freshness and some imagined notion of “accountability,” we lose in terms of the experience and the impact our leaders can bring to bear on our behalf in the halls of government.
In our recent past, Colorado faced the term-limiting retirement of some of its most high profile and effective public servants. Representatives Alice Madden, Andrew Romanoff and Senator Joan Fitz-Gerald (just three) among a long list of servants of state and local government — all were forcibly retired from public service even though they had continued to maintain high idealism and high standards of service. Why — if we value good government and, better than that, smart government — would we willingly exile these excellent public servants? Should Attorney General John Suthers be forced from office just because of the arcane notion of term limits?
The answer, of course, is that we aren’t willingly exiling them — term limits are. While there are, no doubt, good men and women waiting to take their place, we still must be concerned about the consequences of this loss in our government of experience and judgment.
A lot has changed in Colorado politics, and there are vastly different demographics since this issue was first put before the voters in 1994.
This issue needs to be revisited in next year’s state election!
Somehow, some way, we have got to end term limits — and citizens themselves must be the initiators. Term limits are anti-democratic, senseless, lazy and counterproductive measures that weaken the source of our most vital power: the power to create accountability by the force of public opinion, community activism and a marvelous little invention known as a ballot box.
That latter innovation is, in my mind, the only mechanical device that a strong republic needs to ensure its health and prosperity.
Boulder attorney Jim Martin, a former Republican, served as an at-large member of the University of Colorado Board of Regents from 1993 to 2005.