OVER THE COURSE of four-plus years in the state Legislature, I have largely supported Gov. Rendell's agenda.
In my third term, I find his environmental proposals visionary and his focus on transit courageous. I also support some of the reform proposals he discussed at his March 26 press conference.
I'm grateful that he's embraced redistricting reform, and appreciate his efforts on campaign finance. But I find some of his proposals misguided and pernicious and, for the sake of the institution I serve, I'm compelled to speak out.
I have previously written about why shrinking the Legislature is a bad idea. It would concentrate power, dilute the power of the people, make campaigns more expensive and less competitive and significantly worsen constituent service. An even more pernicious idea is term limits.
Term limits are anti-democratic. The right to choose our representatives is the cornerstone of democracy. It would be an arrogant power grab for politicians in Harrisburg to tell you whom you can and cannot elect. It's none of our business whom you choose. Which member of your community you have confidence in is up to you, not us.
Limits also would produce a less competent Legislature. If you were hiring a doctor, lawyer or CEO, would you seek out the least-experienced person? Of course not. That would be insane. So when we hire legislators, why would we say "experienced and knowledgeable people need not apply"?
The Legislature controls more than $30 billion a year. Legislators make life-and-death decisions on topics ranging from abortion to the death penalty to health care. The issues we wrestle with are complicated. Having some legislators who specialize and deeply understand the issues because of their training and experience is immensely helpful.
My sense is that the call for term limits is born out of the anger some people feel over specific legislation. But that's a frivolous reason for purging all experience from Harrisburg. It's not popular to say it, but being a legislator is hard and demanding work. And while there is certainly a need for a constant supply of new blood, having people with experience and institutional memory is essential.
My colleague, Bob Freeman, D-Northampton, has been in the Legislature for nearly 25 years. His focus is land use, and he's an expert in that field. The rest of us look to him for guidance on critical land-use issues, and the state will suffer when he leaves. His constituents have demonstrated no desire to replace him with someone who would have to start from scratch. Who does it benefit to force them to do that?
When asked at his press conference about the loss of such experience, the governor suggested that staffers could pick up the slack. But rather than providing reassurance, this answer illuminates the problem. Do you recall voting for "staff"? Do you even know any staffers' names? Why would we want to turn over the details of our government to unelected, unknown, unaccountable political appointees?
The governor also said that "citizen" legislators would more likely pass laws that he favors. A quaint notion, but there's absolutely no evidence that citizens who, for example, oppose gun control, would suddenly start electing legislators who favor it. In fact, many of the newest legislators are the most adamant opponents of the Rendell agenda.
The example set by our founders is instructive. Thomas Jefferson was in politics for almost 60 years. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, James Madison, were all "career politicians" who spent decades learning and honing their craft. It would have been tragic to lose these giants to a gimmick like term limits.
I've spoken to many legislators from states with term limits. They all say limits have been a catastrophe. People in office for just a few years are in powerful leadership positions and have no idea what they're doing.
Last year, we had 25 percent turnover in the Legislature. If you want more, ask us to adopt redistricting and campaign-finance reform. But don't destroy the institution we rely on to govern us wisely, and don't take away the right of the people to decide who'll represent them. *