Wednesday, March 28, 2007

term limits: a half-baked idea

on my way back from atlantic city this morning, i was listening to a discussion of the various government reform proposals being tossed about here in PA.

most of them i can get behind, but i've never been sure about term limits. it's an old story: the realists say that incumbents always have an advantage and without limits they become corrupt and entrenched. the idealists point out that term limits are inherently undemocratic (they prevent people from choosing the person they may want) and could end up forcing exceptionally talented people to leave office. besides, the idealists says, if the people don't like a politician it's their responsibility to throw that politician out.

both arguments have some appeal to me. so as i was cruising down the atlantic city expressway today i got this crazy idea that probably won't fly, but i thought i'd throw it out there anyway:

what if we set term limits, but rather than bar politicians from office entirely once they reach the limit, just require them to get a super-majority to be re-elected.

it would work like this: say the term limit were set at 8 years for an office with a two-year term. for the first four terms the politician would be elected and re-elected normally. but if the politician wants to run for a fifth term (the first term after the 8 year limit), he or she would have to be elected by 2/3 of the vote. the 2/3 requirement would continue for each successive reelection campaign until the incumbant either loses or decides not to run. when a new person comes in, the term limit clock starts over.

my idea wouldn't completely eliminate the problem of entrenched and corrupt politicians. but it would make it harder for politicians to stay in office indefinitely. as their 8th year of office approaches, many may decide that achieving the 2/3 majority will be too hard and would choose not to run. it also would encourage primary challenges to term-limited incumbents because the challenger could reasonably argue that he or she would be more electable than someone who had a higher bar to clear in the general election. it would also address the "exceptional talented politician" concern. if the candidate is really that great to enough people, it shouldn't be that hard to get the super-majority.

there would be some weird side effects, however. it would be possible, for example, for a person to get elected to office with just 33.4% of the votes (if the term-limited incumbent decides to run but then fails to get the super-majority). that's contrary to our usual notions of how majority rule is supposed to work. but concerns that this would produce a representative that doesn't really represent a majority of constituents would be somewhat tempered by the fact that the candidate would have to win a full majority to be re-elected to his or her second term. that would, at least, give the politician an incentive to try to win over the district during the first term by reflecting the prevailing views of the constituents. majority rule is valued because it is supposed to produce representatives who reflect the views of their constituents. the incentive to win over the district after a less-than-majority victory could just be viewed as another way to get the politician to reflect the views of the constituents. it's not a perfect substitute for a majority mandate, but it arguably could do something similar.

anyway, it's just an idea. i haven't completely thought it through yet and i'm certainly open to tinkering with the details (e.g. making it a 60% supermajority rather than 66.6%). maybe there is some way to meet halfway on the term limit issue after all.