If you are looking to make a life-long career out of serving in local public office, Arlington, Texas, may not be the place for you.
Thanks to a group of residents who collected enough signatures to petition the city government, Arlington voters will likely be deciding whether or not to impose term limits on the mayor and city council members on the November ballot.
The proposed change would cap a mayoral or council career to three two-year terms. The maximum amount of time a person could serve, as mayor and on the council, would be 12 years total.
While there seem to be diverging viewpoints about what prompted the referendum and there are valid reasons to question the specifics of the proposal, the underlying issue — whether or not elected officials should be term-limited — is one worth considering, not just at the local level, but for state and federal government as well.
Zack Maxwell, who is leading the Arlington effort, says limiting the service of lawmakers will take control of government away from career politicians and return it to the citizens.
The argument: incumbency has clear advantages — name recognition,community connections, and other structural benefits like paid staff. Not to mention money, which is often the greatest barrier to a challenger mounting a campaign.
These advantages are amplified at the state and federal level when political parties are involved and campaign price tags can run into the millions. There’s a reason why congressional incumbents seeking reelection win 80-90 percent of the time.
Term limits opponents argue that preventing someone from seeking reelection simply because they’ve held the seat for too long is fundamentally undemocratic because it restricts voter choices, though the converse is also true. Term limits also increase access to public office for “ordinary,”citizens by ensuring that political seats are truly open to competition.
For better or worse, policymaking is a profession that requires skill, knowledge and practice. The learning curve can be steep for office holders and staff alike, and some experts argue that politicians who know their time in office is limited are less likely to develop expertise on specific policy issues. Expertise and experience can be hugely advantageous, especially for policymakers whose service earns them critical leadership positions. Just ask Fort Worth’s own U.S. Rep. Kay Granger who is now a candidate to chair for the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
A revolving door of policymakers also impacts relationships with nongovernmental entities, from businesses to grassroots organizations.
That might be viewed in a positive light, since individual politicians are less likely to be beholden to corporate interests or lobbies, and individual businesses and lobbies are less likely to have unfettered inroads to longstanding office holders.
But as Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams explains, like it or not, stability in government is especially appealing to businesses. And, policymakers who are experienced and knowledgeable are just as likely — perhaps even more so — to take a stand against corporate interests in favor or constituents.
The most compelling argument against term limits is that it robs effective policymakers the opportunity to continue valuable service, and it robs their constituents of good and thoughtful public servants who are a truly rare breed these days.
It should be true that the most effective mechanism available to remove unresponsive or ineffectual public leaders is elections, not term limits. But unless and until voter turnout increases dramatically (I’m talking to you DFW, which boasts some of the lowest local voter turnout in the country), term limits might be a reasonable way to make government more democratic.
If you disagree, VOTE.