In his State of the State message, Governor Paterson made one proposal which, if adopted, would change the very heart of New York state politics. For the first time, a governor called for term limits for elected officials: two four-year terms for the governor, comptroller and attorney general; and six two-year-terms for State Senators and Assemblymembers. That comes out to eight years for executives and 12 years for legislators.
Term limits have less chance in the Legislature than the proverbial snowball in hell. What politician with the chance to be re-elected for the rest of his life will vote to make himself ineligible to serve after 12 years? The governor knows that, but he is positioning himself squarely on the side of the angels in what is likely to be a recurring controversy. Term limits would require amendment of the State Constitution, which would have to be preceded by approval by two successive elected legislatures. Unlike the practice in some other states, there is no way for individuals in New York State to place constitutional amendments on the ballot.
But even if passing term limits is a legislative pipe dream, it is still a discussion that voters should engage in seriously, even if their representatives won’t. The new possibilities of grassroots organizing through social networking websites has given the public an unprecedented tool to insist that their legislators be more responsive to their wishes. A Facebook page titled Citizens For Term Limits In Albany has been created to stimulate public discussion.
There are a number of sound reasons to support term limits, dealing with the fairness of elections. Here, for example, are some advantages incumbents enjoy:
1) Gerrymandering. Sitting members of the legislature draw political districts to suit their own interests. The districts come in odd shapes and sizes, with peninsulas drawn to include an incumbent’s home, and sometimes to exclude a potential rival’s home.
2) Mailings. Members have the right to send periodic reports to their constituents at public expense. Over the years, these mailings build up name recognition for the incumbent, which give him or her an advantage in an electoral contest with a challenger.
3) Political clubs. The organized party machinery in any district generally supports the incumbent. S/he has made contributions to the party over the years, and is friendly with many of the active members.
4) Constituent service. Legislators have staffs and district offices, paid for by the state. The passage of time increases the number of people who will be served by these offices, and those people are more likely to vote for the incumbent who has helped them.
5) Lobbyists. It is the practice of many lobbyists to make regular contributions to politicians, primarily those of the majority party. They comprise the bulk of the donors at fund raisers held in Albany. Having taken money over the years from these special interests, some legislators believe it would be unethical to bite the hand that has been feeding them.
6) Media. Newspapers, television and radio stations report on the activities of incumbents. A challenger, unless he is already well-known, has a relatively brief time to attract public attention in a political campaign.
7) Leadership protection. One reason Speaker Sheldon Silver remained in power is that he protected his members, a function he performed well. For example, on the controversial issue of congestion pricing, he did not allow the bill to come to the floor, so his members did not have to cast individual votes on the proposal. This protected them from the wrath of the editorial boards who were for the plan, while many of their constituents were against it.
For all those reasons, incumbents have an enormous advantage and are generally re-elected, unless they have done something outrageous. Even then, they often win.
The problem resulting from the numerous advantages of incumbency is that people who seek a particular elected office for a lifetime, and will depend on its income, both direct and indirect, to support their families, will make decisions on the basis of what will preserve, protect and defend their careers, which are their and their families’ livelihood. They lose the ability to make judgments on the merits of legislation, even if they were able to discern the merits, an ability which often eludes them. Their support for a measure is the property of their leaders, and is bargained for and bought (or rented), usually not directly but as part of larger arrangements.
The result is that decisions are not made by citizen-legislators, who know they will return to their own profession, but by professional representatives, dedicated to promoting and extending their own careers, and willing to make decisions which will help them to pursue that goal.
Another problem is that, after many years, people go stale in office, offer fewer bills, and become more withdrawn from the public. Some lose their energy or faculties as they grow older; that happens naturally to the human animal.