ELLIOT: Term limits for legislators? Fine, but heres a better idea

The Federal Triangle complex of federal agency buildings in Washington

North Carolina voters may soon be asked whether limiting terms of office for politicians is a good idea. It’s certainly not a new idea.The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 15 states have laws that set limits on the time state legislators can serve. These term limits vary from eight to 16 years, and some are consecutive limits while others are lifetime limits. States on the list with term limits vary greatly from each other, from Maine to California and from Louisiana to Ohio. But it’s fair to say that there does not seems to be a strong correlation between term limits and clean government. Or efficient government. Or strong economic performance.Perhaps that is why the term-limit movement has fizzled: all the laws limiting service were passed from 1990-2000, and two legislatures, Idaho (2002) and Utah (2003), have repealed their term-limiting laws.But the move to set term limits in the Old North State has a twist. The bill putting a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot would limit only the leadership terms for the two chambers. The speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate would be able to serve no more than four consecutive two-year terms as leaders. They could continue to serve in the General Assembly, just not in the top spot.Sponsors say that the effect would be to make leadership less of a governing cabal and more responsive to the elected representatives as a body.In the House, new speakers are the norm. In the latter half of the 20th century, there have been 19 different speakers elected, with only five of those serving more than two sessions. The big exception was Madison County’s Liston B. Ramsey, who was speaker from 1981-1988. More recently, the chamber has elected two speakers since 2011: Thom Tillis for four sessions; and Tim Moore, currently leading his third.The Senate has elected 17 different presidents pro tempore between 1951-2000. Until the 1990s, most served for one or two sessions. But since 1993, the state has had just two Senate leaders: Marc Basnight from 1993-2010 and Phil Berger since 2011.Is the limit on leadership needed? It is probably a sound idea as a statement of principle, although it is doubtful it would have much practical effect.During discussion of the bill, Wake County Rep. Grier Martin made a good point. A Democrat, Grier noted his concern that “if you rotate legislative leadership too often, that might result in some reduction in the legislature’s power vis-à-vis the governor.”Martin has the right branch in mind, but the wrong target. The office of the governor, after all, has term limits already.To see the problem more clearly, consider the words of U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher. Writing about term limits for Congress recently, the Wisconsin Republican said that they would help in “avoiding a disconnect between those who make policy and those who have to live with its consequences.” A worthy goal, to be sure. But is Congress really the most unaccountable source of policy decisions that affect everyday people?As state Rep. Harry Warren (R-Rowan) said recently, legislators “are all here on a two-year contract.” “We don’t have ‘job security.'”Lastly, consider one of the arguments against term limits for Congress. Modern governance is so complex, the theory goes, that if we limit the time legislators can spend learning about issues, it will only empower the lobbyists. Right argument, wrong target.Lobbyists certainly are unaccountable to the citizenry — but they can only influence, not make decisions. No, the most unaccountable decision-makers in government are in the agencies. Due to state and federal civil-service systems that reward longevity over all else and effectively prevent firing anyone, the vast, faceless bureaucratic state is the worst threat.The regulatory state pumps out rules that cost Americans $1.9 trillion annually — or one-tenth of the nation’s gross domestic product. And that’s just the federal bureaucracy.So before we spend a great amount of effort calling for those in the legislative branch to be limited in their years of service, we should discuss limiting those in the executive branch.There are many ways to accomplish this: employing smaller, better paid agency staffs who have the same accountability to management as in the private sector; instituting a portable, defined-contribution retirement system; setting a mandatory retirement age for some employees, as is used in the military and the state judicial branch; or even setting outright service limits on many public-sector positions.It is a conversation worth having. After all, if legislators are willing to limit their own branch, why in the world should they not discuss common-sense checks on the unaccountable parts of the executive branch?
Drew Elliot is a member of the North State Journal’s editorial board, separate from the news staff. Unlike other newspapers, the North State Journal does not publish unsigned editorials; the author or authors of every editorial, letter, op-ed, and column is prominently displayed. To submit a letter or op-ed, see our submission guidelines.