Rocky Mountain News, October 25, 1998

Amendment 18: Pro: Con

Voter power crimped by the advantages of incumbency

By Dennis Polhill

The time is now. Colorado voters have a golden opportunity to change how things are done in the hallways of power.

A constitutional amendment on the Nov. 3 ballot, Amendment 18, will institute an official self-limit option for candidates. If you say yes, candidates for Congress will be able to take a pledge to limit their terms — to act as citizen legislators, not career politicians. The pledge would limit signers to three terms (six years) in the U.S. House of Representatives and two terms (12 years) in the U.S. Senate.

Saying yes to Amendment 18 would not force anybody to do anything. The pledge will be completely voluntary. Candidates who decline to sign will suffer no penalty. Those who do sign can choose whether or not to receive a notation next to their name on future ballots, indicating that they have signed. Those who decline to sign can ask, if they wish, for a notation on the ballot indicating their opposition to term limits.

Is self-limitation a good idea? Only if democracy is a good idea. And only if term limits are democratic. Pro-limiters agree with Lord Acton that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” They know that the longer a politician remains in office, the more susceptible he becomes to the lures of power, at the expense of the common good. Term limits aim to nip this corrupting process in the bud. Self-limitation allows individual representatives to make a clear commitment to voters.

Let’s face it. Deadlines concentrate the mind wonderfully. Instead of playing games, self-limited representatives will be eager to get to work, to accomplish something substantial before they must turn over the baton to the next citizen. They won’t have patience for political games or climbing the seniority ladder. They won’t have time for baloney.

To be sure, term limits are not a cure-all. Even under a completely term-limited legislature, we’d still get rotten apples, people who crave power for the sake of power. But the damage would be limited by the term limit. It’s a safety net citizens need and deserve.

Critics of term limits like to play a kind of trump card, one that seems persuasive at first glance — but only at first glance. “We already have term limits,” they often say. “They’re called elections.” The notion being that the public is perfectly free to eject the current occupant whenever the next election rolls around.

And if that were all that counted, if the only thing needed to sustain democratic institutions were the ability of registered voters to enter a booth and yank a lever, the argument would indeed trump. It would also prove too much, e.g., that every banana republic or totalitarian dictatorship that holds an election is a flourishing liberal democracy, no matter how meaningless that election might be.

Elections do count in this country. Voters do exercise real power at every level of government. But that power is crimped by the advantages of incumbency.

Name recognition is one obvious advantage. The chance to spend other people’s money on special interests (who then turn around and fund the incumbent’s campaign) is another. Franking privileges (the freedom to send large amounts of self-promotion mail at taxpayer’s expense, in the guise of “informing” the voters) are a third.

Challengers don’t get franking privileges. Challengers aren’t allowed to spend public money building dams and bridges. Challengers don’t have the kind of politically rigged, gerrymandered districts that so many incumbents enjoy.

Sometimes term-limit skeptics concede the undemocratic advantages of incumbency, but still reject term limits. They say reform should be engineered from within by the incumbents themselves. The problem is that already-ensconced incumbents have little incentive, as a group, to restrain their own collective power. But as a voter, you can demand that individual candidates limit themselves and you can hold your representative to that commitment.

Once upon a time, our statesmen typically served a couple of terms and then went home, following the lead of George Washington. Alas, the Founders took the virtue of rotation so much for granted that nobody bothered to write it into the Constitution (an omission that distressed Jefferson, for one). But the virtue of rotation is nowhere to be seen in today’s Congress.

The best show of good faith that any politician, aspirant or incumbent, can make to prove he’s serious about political reform is to formally agree to limit his own terms.

To sign a public pledge to do so. To affirm that he’s a citizen legislator, not a career politician. That he means what he says.

Colorado voters have led the charge for term limits by passing the first congressional term limits in the nation back in 1990. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court wasn’t willing to let the will of the voters prevail. This time, there will be no way to overturn what you decide. Say yes to Amendment 18. The time is now.

Dennis Polhill is co-chairman of Colorado Term Limits Coalition




Voters don’t back up talk

By Charles Roos

For the fourth time in eight years the people of Colorado are going to vote on the issue of term limits, and the 1998 version — Amendment 18— is the zaniest yet.

It is not only half-baked, unnecessary and maybe unconstitutional, but it also could clutter and confuse Colorado ballots for years to come.

It is a sneaky attempt aimed, indirectly but surely, at forcing term limits on our members of Congress. It would set up a “voluntary” system for disclosure of candidates’ views on term limits by printing labels on the ballot.

Never mind that the Supreme Court has said no state may impose term limits on Congress.

Never mind what other views a candidate may have — on the economy, education or foreign affairs. The one and only ballot disclosure would be on term limits.

How silly can it get?

Of course the people who want this clinker in the Colorado Constitution will argue that it’s necessary to help get rid of members who have served much too long and who have refused to quit voluntarily.

Let’s look at that.

In Colorado’s delegation, we now have one senator serving his first term, Republican Wayne Allard, and one running for his second, Republican Ben Campbell. We have one representative running for his seventh House term, Republican Joel Hefley, one running for his fourth term, Republican Scott McInnis, and two running for their second terms, Democrat Diana DeGette and Republican Bob Schaffer. We also have two open districts in which the November winners will be first-termers.

As I figure it, as of now the delegation has an average of fewer than four years experience on the job, not counting Campbell’s and Allard’s previous service in the House.

But does that sound like we have a delegation of entrenched, doddering autocrats? Not to me.

But wait, say the backers of Amendment 18, the voters of Colorado have already said three times they want term limits. Well, yes, they have, on a statewide basis, but there’s another way to look at it.

Consider the career of six-term Congressman Joel Hefley. El Paso County, which dominates his district, voted 4-to-1 for the original, broad term-limit amendment in 1990 and reaffirmed, its support of the concept in 1994 and 1996.

Yet at the same time El Paso was giving Hefley majorities of upwards of 68 percent for his third, fourth, fifth and sixth terms. In 1994, he had no opposition in either party.

When it came right down to it, how strongly did Hefley’s backers believe in term limits?

Then there’s the case of Denver’s now-retired congresswoman, Democrat Pat Schroeder, who served 12 House terms — a whopping 24 years. Well, in 1990 Denver voters approved the original term-limit proposal by 63 percent, but on the same day they re-elected Schroeder to her 10th term by 64 percent.

OK. So what about 6th District Republican Dan Schaefer, retiring this year after 16 years? Same story. His two counties, Arapahoe and Jefferson, voted decisively for term limits three times. Yet they always gave Schaefer monumental majorities.

In the legislative council’s evenhanded analysis of 1998 ballot issues, one argument given for Amendment 18 is that it “provides an opportunity for members of Congress from Colorado to choose to limit the number of terms they will serve.”

Hey, they already have that opportunity. More important, voters have the same opportunity every time a member comes up for reelection.

The sad fact, folks, is that the term-limitation people, one way or another, by slogan and subterfuge, want to take away your freedom to elect the people you want for as long as you want them.

It’s as simple as that.

QUOTE: Trust democracy, U.S. voters don’t need any help throwing the bums out.” They already can and do.USA Today (1994) Charles Roos, retired political editor at the News, writes a weekly column that appears on Fridays.