Term limits are back, or at least they are in Illinois. A petition to help fix Illinois from Turnaround Illinois is trying to stir public interest in an ethics issue that plagues the state, Capitol Hill, and almost everywhere politicians refuse to hop off the public service gravy train. This doesn’t mean term limits will be passed in Illinois any more than we will limit legislators’ terms in Washington. Legislative strangleholds on ethics rules won’t let that happen.
Is there a bigger picture? Even if we had term limits are they enough, or do we need new, draconian laws to keep legislators in line?
Term limits aren’t the reform you are hoping for
Proposing new ethics rules serves one purpose: it gives politicians something safe to talk about. The firmest political ground is an issue where the outcome is already known.*
Term limits aren’t really the ethics rules we need to stop public officials from taking advantage. They won’t address the problem of why lawmakers want to hang on year after year. They won’t put a dent in corruption or lying. If anything, limiting legislative terms might speed up the urgency to profit from public service legally or illegally because there is less time to make money or be corrupt.
Political royalty vs. the common man
Everyone seems to agree that public service should be exactly that. It is not a reward for besting an opponent in an election or fooling the common man by saying whatever it takes to get his vote.
Republican Senator David Vitter hit the problem on the head when he introduced a number of ethics bills including term limits, campaign finance reform, and eliminating Washington’s Obamacare exemption:
We need to get back to the best traditions of our democracy – including electing citizen legislators, making sure they don’t put themselves into a separate ruling class, and implementing term limits so individuals don’t remain in office for an eternity.1
Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis echoes Vitter’s remarks:
Term limits would neuter the ruling class in DC and shift the focus of members of Congress away from staying in Washington and towards doing something in Washington.2
We pride ourselves on a fair Democratic government despite a political elite that forces common folk to pay for their whims. Mike Madigan’s imperial reign in Springfield proves why we should never allow a lawmaker to take up permanent residence. An eternity is a long time. Just ask taxpayers in Illinois. We are the example for all to follow of why we need term limits and strong ethics rules to keep politicians from becoming royalty or worse.
Is there an easier ethics fix than a passel of new laws?
One simple ethics rule all politicians fear
Lawmakers are adept at pointing fingers at each other’s ethical lapses. Now it’s election season. The heat is on. Knees are shaking. People are unhappy, even angry over two lackluster candidates for America’s highest office. Republicans need to worry not only about their Democratic opponents, but also how their public remarks about Trump will affect their numbers at the polls.
House and Senate contenders have Trump and Clinton to argue over to distract us from the kinds of things that raise constituent blood pressure. We aren’t hearing many calls for new ethics rules, which is probably a good thing given the exaggerations and outright lies that will be sowed on the campaign trail this fall.
How many ethics problems could we fix with a law to make lying to the people punishable as perjury because it violates the public trust?
Imagine having real transparency in what candidates and legislators say instead of phony, press release transparency. Politicians could be forced to cite where their “facts” come from when they issue a press release, make a speech, or announce a new bill. It’s not that hard. School kids do it all the time. The public deserves to know whether we are being fed real information or facts manipulated by lobbyists.
Pushing legislation is only the start. Consider this statement from Harry Reid in a press release arguing why immigrants are better than Trump:
…Trump lies about giving to charity.3
Reid’s proof? None was offered.
One more ethics rule so legislators don’t wear out their welcome
If we take the financial incentive out of public service we might not need term limits. We can start by giving public officials everywhere common man 401(k)s. I am from Illinois so this is my favorite ethical fix by far. Public officials at all levels of government should get the same kind of retirement accounts Democrats insist they will protect for rank and file Americans. I can’t imagine a better reason to stay in office, refusing to fix problems and pointing fingers across the aisle than accumulating a retirement income that goes up with years in office.
I also can’t imagine a better reason for a greedy, self-serving public official to make a hasty exit than knowing that serving the public doesn’t include serving their own retirement account. With no public pensions to inflate and no public lies to tell without risking jail we might not even need term limits. Face it. We would be taking all the fun out of political office.
UPDATE December 29, 2016: Obama’s recent boast that he could have won the 2016 election had he been allowed to run for another term should make us all thankful for what term limits can do.
*No disrespect to Governor Rauner’s agenda intended. Term limits are absolutely essential in Illinois, though the two other fixes in this post might make them unnecessary.