The best way to measure the effectiveness of term limits is seeing how often politicians grumble about it. If they’re complaining a lot, then you’ve likely got a great term limit in place.
Jacksonville Councilman Matt Schellenberg might not realize it, but he is part of a trend here in Florida: that of political insiders scheming to undo the will of voters by abolishing term limits.
These repeal campaigns never come from the people, who regardless of party support term limits at supermajority levels. They’re always top-down efforts led by the same power brokers getting termed out of office.
But such behavior overlooks the fact that term limits weren’t invented to give politicians live the life of Riley. Early advocates had the opposite in mind. They wanted to make elected office less desirable and officeholders less powerful.
That’s why 82 percent of Jacksonville voters took to the ballot in 1991 to pass term limits for the City Council. Around that time, Jacksonville was plagued by an epidemic of uncompetitive elections controlled by incumbents.
Term limits broke that stronghold and created opportunities for fresh faces and ideas to emerge. Today Jacksonville has some of the most competitive elections in Florida, bolstered by the guarantee of open seats every eight years.
Asking lawmakers whether there should be term limits is like asking Wall Street bankers whether they want to be regulated; it’s a fool’s errand riddled with conflicts of interest.
When an office has limitless tenure, its holder continues to accumulate power until he or she becomes a local legend. Banquets are held in the person’s honor; doors are always held open and an army of yes-men forms to laugh at every joke he or she tells. If the office allows the holder to keep private sector employment on the side, that firm will overflow with new clients looking to do business with someone who’s wired into local affairs.
Elected power has an intoxicating effect on people. They begin to believe their own hype which makes them vulnerable to corruption and unwilling to leave office. Term limits in Florida guard against these attitudes. It ensures that each elected official is just another brick in the wall, set to be rotated out and replaced with new energy.
Jacksonville’s term limits, like those of the Florida Legislature, already have a loophole. They allow a member to run for his old seat after sitting out just one term. The problem for politicians, though, is that voters rarely want their old incumbent back after testing the alternative. The “you really need me” attitude of the anti-term limit leader is quickly rejoined by voters’ sentiment of “no, we’re better off with someone else.”
That leaves experience as the last superficially plausible reason for doing away with term limits. It’s front and center in Schellenberg’s argument for repeal.
But are term-limited leaders really worse at their jobs? Not in the slightest.
According to the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, states with term limits perform better on average in measures of fiscal health and solvency than their career politician peers. Florida was just named the most fiscally well-run state in America.
Besides, we don’t need a crystal ball to see how Schellenberg’s ideal, non-term limited system would work. It already exists in Washington, D.C. and is called Congress.
It’s rife with division, plagued by corruption and hasn’t solved a problem in 40 years.
Instead of bringing Washington’s career politician problem to Jacksonville, Schellenberg ought to help bring Jacksonville’s term limits to Congress.
Nick Tomboulides is executive director of U.S. Term Limits, a non-profit that advocates for term limits at all levels of government. He is based in Melbourne, FL.