Written by John Biver
Former governor Pat Quinn agrees with Bruce Rauner, the guy who made him a former governor, when it comes to term limits. While Rauner continues to press for term limits for state legislative and statewide offices, Quinn has launched an effort aimed at the City of Chicago’s mayor. More on those proposals later. First, a few comments on the issue itself.
Limiting the years a person can serve in important political offices isn’t new. In fact, it’s very old. When the ancient Greeks pioneered democratic government 2500 years ago, they set it up so the entire 500-man council meeting on Pnyx Hill in Athens had 500 new faces every year. That’s right — serve a one-year term and then you’re out. Their reasoning was simple — the goal was “democracy.” Here is one dictionary breaking down the word: From the Greek dēmokratia, from dēmos ‘the people’ +-kratia ‘power, rule.’
If the people were to rule, it would not be a good idea to vest too much power in any individual, including the power to hold office for extended periods of time.
During the American founding, term limits existed at the state level and were proposed for federal offices during the Constitutional Convention. When limits were left out, among those very concerned were Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and Mercy Otis Warren (*see footnote below).
Term limits of a sort exist in the private sector as well — it’s easy to list a few examples. There are corporations that have age-limits for their senior executives. Airline pilots have a mandatory retirement age. Jobs that are physically demanding or that require exacting physical skill have a natural limit, as do professional sports like football and baseball, obviously.
The nature of political power is different from non-political power, of course, but there’s another layer to consider within the arena of government where “We the People” purport to rule. And that layer is the nature of the people drawn to run for political office.
Let me say this first to get it over with: a lot of good men and women run for and win political office. That said — allow me to emphasize something that I believe is too often over-looked: politics is a magnet for a lot ofless than good men and women.
Politics isn’t unique in attracting a certain personality type. For example, if you know anyone who works as an actor on stage, TV or film, chances are the spirit of Thespis that draws them to the stage manifests in colorful ways. They’re uninhibited to say the least.
Have any friends or family members that work in the trades such as an electrician, carpenter, mason, plumber, painters? Again, there’s a range of personalities to be found everywhere but my experience is that these tradesmen and women are sturdy, no nonsense people.
However, politics attracts so many of the wrong people that economic miracles like Illinois and the United States can be turned into economic basket cases.
The safeguards provided by separation of power, checks and balances, and even federalism don’t work too well when most people in and around government profit nicely from the system. As long as the taxpayers keep coughing up the money, there’s no reason to check or balance anything.
Elections are term limits, it’s true — but the advantages of incumbency is well documented. Sure, voters can be blamed for continuing to elect too many candidates whose goal is power, prestige and profit and not policy reform. What is clear is that far too many of the people who get their names on the ballot lack the skill level of a good accountant.
Imagine if the failure rate was similar in other professions. Compare the countless governmental policy boondoggles with the number of buildings that collapse due to poor engineering.
The next generation is inheriting debt and decline and our political class is so bright, many of them can’t even figure out who should use what bathroom.
All of the above was written to make the point that passing of term limits is no panacea. Electing a new corrupt and/or incompetent politician to replace the old politician gets you nowhere. California limits the terms of its legislators — and that state continues to accelerate in the wrong direction.
If term limits are passed in Illinois there are four key things to keep in mind:
First, if a person has been in office for 30 years on the day a ten-year term limit becomes law, that person can stretch their tenure out another ten years. The clock starts when the bill becomes a law, so there will be little immediate impact.
A third thing that comes into play is the issue of pensions, and it’s not just legislators that legally abuse the system as Jim Edgar‘s example dramatically illustrates. Right now for Illinois legislators, a person vests in the pension system after eight years in office and is eligible for a full pension after twenty years.
Fourth, if a ten year term limit is imposed, will the time needed for vesting as well as for getting full benefits be shortened? Anyone who can do the math and see the corruption of the government employee pension systems in Illinois should agree that the best course of action — at a minimum — is to get rid of all pensions for elected office holders.
Next time we’ll take a look at the proposals being advanced by Pat Quinn and Bruce Rauner.
*Footnote: [W]hen the states ratified the U.S. Constitution (1787–88), several leading statesmen regarded the lack of mandatory limits to tenure as a dangerous defect, especially, they thought, as regards the presidency and the U.S. Senate. Richard Henry Lee viewed the absence of legal limits to tenure, together with certain other features of the U.S. Constitution, as “most highly and dangerously oligarchic.” Both Jefferson and George Mason advised limits on reelection to the U.S. Senate and to the Presidency, because said Mason, “nothing is so essential to the preservation of a Republican government as a periodic rotation.” The historian Mercy Otis Warren, warned that “there is no provision for a rotation, nor anything to prevent the perpetuity of office in the same hands for life; which by a little well-timed bribery, will probably be done.” ~Source.
Post Script: For an excellent book on the philosophic backing for term limits, George Will’s Restoration holds up well after over two decades. Note also, it’s often easy to find a good review of a book should you lack the time to read it. For more information as well, visit U.S. Term Limits.
Term Limits: While Not A Panacea, Quinn & Rauner Advance Worthy Proposals (Part 2)
Written by John Biver
Former Governor Pat Quinn, a fixture on the Illinois political scene for decades, has been on the statewide ballot many times, and also served as State Treasurer and Lt. Governor. Earlier this month, Reboot Illinois’ Matt Dietrich wrote this:
Before serving as governor from 2009 to 2015, Pat Quinn was known as a rabble-rousing reformer who, most famously, led a 1980 citizen initiative that cut the membership of the Illinois House by one-third.
Now Quinn wants to “open up” Chicago’s City Hall “and let the people in” — this is how his TakeChargeChicago.org states it:
Welcome to Take Charge Chicago, a grassroots movement to open up City Hall and let the people in. Take Charge Chicago aims to put two binding referendums on the ballot: a term limit on the Mayor of Chicago; and creation of an elected Consumer Advocate to be a champion for beleaguered Chicago taxpayers and consumers.
As written at the Associate Press:
The binding referendums could be on ballots as early as November or in the 2018 cycle, meaning there’s potential to make Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel ineligible to seek a third term in 2019.
In an email to supporters, Quinn wrote:
Consider three points:
1. Chicago is the only city among the nation’s 10 biggest cities without a term limit on its mayor.
2. Incumbent Chicago mayors routinely outspend their challengers by millions of dollars reaped from lobbyists, corporations and billionaires.
3. The best way to achieve true campaign finance reform and end secrecy in City Hall is through mayoral term limits. And the only way to achieve term limits is through a petition drive and binding referendum, a power authorized by the 1970 Illinois Constitution.
During one 56-year span without the term limit, Richard J. Daley and his son Richard M. Daley served as mayor for a combined 43 years.
Governor Bruce Rauner’s effort to implement term limits for state-level offices is summed up in his “turnaround agenda”:
Term Limits Amendment
Background: Fifteen other states impose term limits on state legislators. Most states impose a limit of eight to 12 years in each chamber. It’s time for Illinois to adopt legislative term limits.
Proposal: The Illinois Constitution should be amended to limit a Representative or Senator from holding that office or combination of those offices for more than 10 years.
Here is Austin Berg writing at the Illinois Policy Institute:
As part of his “Turnaround Agenda,” Gov. Bruce Rauner wants a constitutional amendment limiting the governor’s tenure to eight years and state politicians’ to 10 years. Lawmakers filed resolutions in the Illinois House and Senate on May 22 to this end.
High demand for term limits in Illinois should come as a surprise to no one. Illinoisans are far less trusting of their state government than residents in any other state, and for good reason. The Land of Lincoln is one of the most corrupt states in the country, and contains the nation’s most corrupt city, Chicago, according to a new report from researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The Illinois Policy Institute is unabashed in its support for term limits — and lays out their argument succinctly:
Illinois’ political machine is fueled by career lawmakers.
With more than 80 years in office between Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, entrenched political figures run the show in Illinois.
Madigan has consolidated his power through decades of fundraising, redistricting and scare tactics, to the point where nothing can become Illinois law without his approval. How’s that for democracy?
It’s time to dismantle Illinois’ political machine once and for all. It’s time for term limits on Illinois lawmakers.
As was pointed out in part 1, term limits have been a part of the American fabric since its founding era:
According to [James Young’s The Washington Community 1800–1828], the tendency to look with mistrust upon political power was so ingrained into American culture that even the officeholders themselves perceived their occupations in a disparaging light. James Fenimore Cooper described the common view that “contact with the affairs of state is one of the most corrupting of the influences to which men are exposed.” An article in the Richmond Enquirer (1822) noted that the “long cherished” principle of rotation in office had been impressed on the republican mind “by a kind of intuitive impulse, unassailable to argument or authority.” ~Source.
If you’re old enough, you might remember that the Republicans’ “Contract with America” in 1994 included a promise to call to a vote a Constitutional Amendment for term limits. Since the bill failed to get a two-thirds majority, it failed.
Here is another bit of interesting information on the overall topic:
Legal scholars have discussed whether or not to impose term limits on the Supreme Court of the United States. Currently, Supreme Court Justices are appointed for life “during good behaviour.” A sentiment has developed, among certain scholars, that the Supreme Court may not be accountable in a way that is most in line with the spirit of checks and balances. Equally, scholars have argued that life tenure has taken on a new meaning in a modern context. Changes in medical care have markedly raised life expectancy and therefore has allowed Justices to serve [far] longer than ever before. ~ Source.
A few more facts from the same source as above:
- Term limits for state officials have existed since colonial times.
- At present, 36 states have term limits of various types for their governors.
- Governors of 36 states and 4 territories are subject to various term limits, while the governors of 14 states, Puerto Rico, and the Mayor of Washington, D.C., may serve an unlimited number of [terms].
According to the Encyclopedia Chicago, “Alderman Mathias ‘Paddy’ Bauler summed up the prevailing political climate of the mid-twentieth century when he observed, ‘Chicago ain’t ready for reform yet.’”
Illinois and Chicago are both ready for and in much need of many reforms. Term limits are a good one to add to the list. Getting the larger work of reform accomplished, however, still requires more Illinoisans and Chicagoans to step up and do the work required in the political fields.