Columns » Max Brantley

Election snooze

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The U.S. seems likely this year to see the most expensive, most contentious and most important presidential election since I began voting. By contrast, politics on the state and local level are humdrum. Contested races are few. Many blame term limits. The theory is that, with a frequent turnover in state legislative seats, budding politicians need not challenge an incumbent. They can wait a few years for an open seat. This is a decent theory. But you don't find an abundance of contested races at the local level, where no term limits apply. Another theory worth considering is the diminished stature of public office. Many assume the worst about people who run for public office. If they are not crooks or captives of special interests, they are too dumb to capitalize on their opportunities. It's a wonder anyone decent would volunteer for a job with such a low public opinion. There's also the cost of public service. It is hard to be an effective legislator, at the local or state level, without devoting a tremendous number of hours to the job. The pay is small. Many choose not to endanger career success by diverting time to public service. If term limits are the problem, an effort is underway to solve it. Legislators have proposed a constitutional amendment to lengthen to 12 years the time a state legislator may serve before being forced out of office - now generally six years in the House and eight in the Senate. Current legislators would enjoy the extension if the measure passes. Even the politicians who once campaigned on the benefits of term limits tend to decide, once safely in office, that term limits aren't a good idea. The vote is a term limit, after all. The term limits movement is rooted in a fundamental mistrust of government and hatred of taxes. I think government is too important to be starved. But if the law is changed in Arkansas, it will be for the wrong reason. The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and the Farm Bureau, along with other big lobbies, will lead the fight to overturn the term limits law. They will tell you that the legislature lacks institutional memory and experience. True. But, thanks to hopping between the House and Senate and the transfer of seats to kinfolk, it is also true that the legislature isn't nearly so fresh-faced as term limit proponents might have hoped. What lobbyists really hate about term limits is unpredictability. When a lobby uses campaign contributions and perks to cultivate the chairmen and key members of important committees, they'd prefer a long-term return on the investment. Now, chairmanships can change every two years, along with entire committee memberships. The lobbyist must cultivate anew every session. What's more, voting patterns aren't nearly so reliable. Legislative short-timers, rather than being more independent and courageous, turn out to be even more susceptible to whim - their own and the electorate's. Entrenched incumbents had the luxury of being able to take the long view and to resist fads. Lobbyists yearn for those good old days. I have to decide if, principles aside, I really want to be in their foxhole.

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