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Term limits: A legislative dumbing-down

With lawmakers, as with doctors and CEOs, experience should be valued, not discarded.

By Daylin Leach

The old expression "all that glitters is not gold" applies to some of the proposed "reforms" in Harrisburg. There are certainly some important reforms that we badly need to enact, including my redistricting reform proposal, as well as campaign finance reform. But some of the proposals are actually pernicious, the worst being term limits.

Term limits are a terrible idea for many reasons. First, such limits are antidemocratic. They were rejected by the founders because they go against the fundamental notion that the people, not politicians already in power, must select their leaders. There is no more essential cornerstone of democracy than our right to choose our own representatives. We should vigilantly guard that right. It would be an arrogant power grab for politicians in Harrisburg to tell you who you can and cannot elect to represent you. It's frankly none of our business who you choose. That's up to you, not us.

Second, term limits equals a less competent legislature. If you were hiring a doctor, a lawyer, or a CEO to run a company, would you seek out the least experienced person you could find? Of course not. That would be insane. So when we hire legislators, why would we say "experienced and knowledgeable people need not apply"?

I know that 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 personal experience and institutional memory is essential. My colleague Bob Freeman (D., Northampton), for example, has been in the legislature for close to 25 years. His focus is land use, and he is an expert in that field. The rest of us look to him for guidance on these critical issues. The state will suffer when he leaves. His constituents have demonstrated no desire to replace him with someone who would have to start learning from scratch. Who does it benefit to force them to do just that?

When asked - at his news conference endorsing term limits - about the loss of experience, Gov. Rendell suggested that legislators' staff could pick up the slack. But rather than reassure, this answer illuminates the problem. Do you recall voting for any staff? Do you even know any of their 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 soldiers" would be more likely to pass the legislation that he favors. That is a quaint notion, but there is absolutely no empirical evidence that citizens who, for example, oppose gun control would suddenly start electing legislators who favor it because of term limits. In fact, many of the newly elected legislators are the most adamantly against the Rendell agenda.

I think that the example of our founders is instructive. Thomas Jefferson was in politics for almost 60 years. Ben Franklin, John Adams, James Madison and others were all "career politicians" who spent decades learning and honing their craft. It would have been tragic to lose these giants of the Republic mid-career to a silly gimmick like term limits.

I have spoken to many people from states with term limits – Maine and Arizona being just two. They all say term limits have been a catastrophe. People in office for just a couple of years are in powerful positions of leadership and have no idea what they are doing.

Term limits are a forced dumbing-down of our government. Last year, we had a 25 percent turnover in the legislature. If we adopt redistricting and campaign finance reform, there will be even more. But we mustn't destroy the institution we rely on to govern us wisely, and we can't take away the right of the people to make their own decisions about who will represent them.