Every electoral cycle, we hear chants of getting rid of the incumbent and electing some fresh new face. In the U.S. Congress, the House has about a 96 percent re-election rate and the Senate has an approximately 86 percent reelection rate. And when we don't see things change for the better but take turns for the worse, or hear of scandals, talk of term limits becomes common.
On the one hand, a term limit seems to be a good way to limit the amount of time an individual remains in office and get fresh new faces in office. And the high re-election rates are cited as evidence for the need for term limits.
On the other, if we did have terms limits, we destroy the institutional knowledge that develops on certain issues, which opens up lobbyists, special interest groups and professional staff to unduly influence new representatives; the research on the matter confirms this true in jurisdictions that have switched to term limits.
Also, by having term limits, we would make it impossible for the voters' choice to keep serving - what can be more undemocratic?
It can also be said that the high re-election rates are a validation that the majority of the voters are getting who they want.
My thought is that if we're not getting what we want, we need to pay more attention to who we want.
While term limits do more harm than good, elections certainly need better campaign finance laws to limit the influence of special interests on the incumbents we elect.
Here is an idea in need of vetting: don't give retirement pensions to career legislators. Politics and public policy are about those who are served. Retirement pensions are a substantial personal motivator to seek re-election - just look at how disgraced politicians fight for their pensions - but it should not be about those who serve. Not to mention that retirement pensions are a drain on budgets.
Modest wage necessary
There should, however, be some modest living wage associated with elected service; without a living wage the only people who could represent us are those who are rich enough to serve without an income.
Term limits for executives - president, governor, mayor, sheriff, etc. - are a good thing for a variety of reasons, especially keeping check on power.
Besides, if executives want to continue to serve the public after their term limits are up, they can do so as a representative; for example, President John Quincy Adams served as president from 1825 to 1829 and then as a U.S. representative from Massachusetts between 1831 and 1848.
We have term limits but just don't realize it - they are called elections. The voters have the ability to say enough is enough when they want to oust someone. But we should be careful about the unintended consequences to term limits.
PAUL HEROUX of Attleboro is a candidate at Harvard University's JFK School of Government for a master's of public administration.