Term limits with a twist: Attrition of unneeded elected offices

Can you name the starting lineup of your favorite sports team?  Most people can’t. Studies indicate that most people can remember 7 things plus or minus 2 (i.e., 5 to 9) at a time.  Thus, most people could remember the starting lineup of a basketball team but not a football team.

Our political process is convoluted in numerous ways, one of which is that in most elections, voters are asked to be familiar with far more candidates than is reasonable.  In the November 2010 election in Harris County (Houston), TX, voters faced the longest ballot ever.  Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman gave a vivid demonstration of the daunting list of candidates by unfolding a ballot that extended to nearly her height.  Each voter was expected to be knowledgeable about all 72 judicial contests as well as a number of others.

In straightforward terms, the Harris County ballot was not of a human scale.  It was a ballot on steroids.

We might call this phenomenon “candidate-flation.”  It is happening all over the country.

Where I live in St. Louis County, Missouri, there are 91 communities with taxing authority, 23 fire protection districts, and also 23 school districts.  There are two clear problems with this system as it impacts voting.

First, each voter has to make decisions in up to fifteen federal, state, and local elections. Additionally, there can be a myriad of referenda and constitutional amendments on the ballot. Most of these contain complicated language; many have contradictory wording.

Second, the aggregate of all the elections for all offices in St. Louis County can mean that there are hundreds of candidates.  Even if the media wanted to cover all of them it would be virtually impossible to do so.

For decades there have been efforts to consolidate government.  A streamlined system would be easier for voters.  Additionally it would simplify the jobs of those responsible for implementing policies. With a few exceptions, consolidation has not been implemented.  Why?  Because it means that elected officials are going to lose their jobs.  They don’t like the idea of losing fiefdoms.

There has been a considerable increase in the term-limit movement since the Watergate era of the 1970s.  The limits are a reflection of the “throw the rascals out” mentality.  Term limits do bring fresh, but not necessarily better, faces into the political arena

Term limits have made the system more complicated for voters.  There used to be “old standby” candidates whom voters had known for decades, and whom they either automatically supported or opposed.  Term limits means that every six or eight years, the familiar names disappear to be replaced by someone often unknown to them.

Watergate was key because it reinforced the idea that both the raising and spending of campaign money could lead to mischief.  In its wake, groups formed to regulate campaign financing.  Some even called for the abolition of private donations.  Campaigns would be financed by limited grants from government.  Public financing would reduce temptations for corruption and also provide a system in which challengers could have financial resources equal to those of incumbents.   Such a system would provide a natural turnover, and deserving, fresh faces could be elected.

It is not a surprise that monied interests opposed public financing, banning their contributions to candidates.  So corporations, interest groups, wealthy individuals, and others who had a stake in gaining special influence with politicians came up with term limits as the alternative.  Term limits would satisfy voters’ desire to “throw the rascals out” in a timely way.  However, the funders would retain their roles as major influencers in the political arena.

The campaign finance reform movement was initiated by progressive individuals and groups to try to level the playing field.  The movement has stalled because, as expected, there is little support for it among incumbent legislators.  Additionally, there is a legitimate argument that forbidding private contributions might be a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech.

Lobbyists had another reason for supporting term limits and opposing campaign finance reform.  Term limits meant the elimination of “wizened veteran legislators,” the individuals with the greatest institutional memory and knowledge of how the system works.  Lobbyists have become the masters of procedure, and hence sneak through their pet projects.

For all of its shortcomings, term limits may be the key to consolidating government.  They can be used to eliminate unnecessary political offices.

Here’s the way it would work.

A transition period  would be established in which no political offices would be eliminated.  Thus Ms. Kaufman in Harris County, TX  might wind up with an even longer ballot. During the transition,  a system of consolidation would be developed.  First, we would develop a list of offices to be termed out.  The time frame could  be by years (5, 10, or 20).  Another option would be to eliminate the office after one or two more individuals had served their terms.  In any event, within 20 years or so, many unneeded offices would be eliminated.  These would be offices that voters would  not have to worry about.
When consolidation is  completed, a voter could go to the polls and actually only have to remember the magic number of 7, plus or minus 2, items.
What would be left  could be that magic number of seven – seven offices:

  1. President and  Vice-President
  2. U.S. Senate
  3. U.S. House of Representatives
  4. Governor (all other  statewide executive office would be termed out and the governor would  appoint a cabinet as the president does).
  5. One state legislator,  because all state legislatures would become unicameral (one house) as  Nebraska is now.
  6. “Mayor” of  metropolitan area.  With municipalities  in a metropolitan area combined into unit, only a regional chief  executive would be needed.
  7. Representative on  municipal legislative council.

This idea is not yet “ready for prime time.”  But most of our problems are going to take one or more generations to adequately address; we’ve been in a period of sustained obstructionism and inefficiency.  If you prefer government to stay in the background, you can still elect candidates who support that notion.  However, if you think that government can be the solution to certain problems, attrition through term limits would finally give you a level playing field.