In Wichita, city council members and the mayor are limited to serving two four-year terms. Last February the Wichita Eagle reported that some council members were considering a measure to end term limits. The main reason for wanting to do away with term limits is the perception that time and experience are required in order to become an effective council member. But under term limits, the tenure of experienced council members is artificially cut short. The public, therefore, doesn’t get the benefit of these experienced council members.
At a recent Wichita Pachyderm Club meeting, council member Paul Gray spoke. I asked him about term limits — he has about two more years to serve before his limit expires — and he expressed opposition to term limits as he did last year.
“I think it’s an arbitrary barrier that puts more power in the hands of bureaucracy and staff than it does in elected representatives,” he said. He added there’s not enough support on the city council to pass a resolution that would then appear on a ballot that citizens would vote on.
Kansas Senator Kansas Senator Chris Steineger, Democrat from Kansas City, expressed similar concerns to me. He said it takes experience to become a good legislator. With high turnover in the Kansas legislature, he said we don’t make the best decisions that we could make.
Underlying these arguments is the assumption that we need experienced, effective legislators, county commission members, city council members, and school board members. If your goal is to expand the power and influence of government, maybe so. But if you seek to limit the power of government and tip the balance back towards individual liberty, experienced and powerful elected representatives are not what we need.
The argument that we need experienced elected officials to provide a counter to powerful staff members and bureaucrats can be eliminated by, well, eliminating powerful staff and bureaucrats. If we seek a limited government, we need to reduce the number and power of these. In the meantime, elected representatives should pass laws that give more power to them, rather than to staff and bureaucrats.
There is one argument against term limits that is persuasive to me. If we view voting as an act of speech, then term limits are a limitation on that speech. I asked a noted term limits opponent at the national level about this, and he’d never heard that argument before. So it’s novel, and perhaps I’m not thinking though this argument thoroughly.
I do know, however, that if the power and intrusiveness of government were limited, it wouldn’t matter as much who holds office.