We've Already Got Term Limits - at the Ballot Box
Now that tea party sympathizers and other critics of lengthy incumbencies have won seats in Congress and the state legislature, I wonder how long they will adhere to their term limit philosophy.
The Nov. 2 election results were radical, but close examination is more illustrative of our diversity as a nation than reflection of political ideology. Disgust with our economic condition stirred the emotions of many voters on an anti-incumbent jag this year.
Opponents of 6th District Republican Congressman Howard Coble in both the primary and the general election called attention to his long incumbency. Their charges barely nicked a whisker. Coble easily won his 14th term.
In theory, I agree that long incumbencies pose problems. A member of Congress can become so deeply entrenched in the bureaucracy and special interests as to work more for self than constituency. There is much to be said for giving someone else a chance to serve.
We have all observed officeholders who served until they were too old or too feeble to carry out their duties adequately. Their success depends largely on the competency of senior staff.
Coble, who turns 80 in March, is more energetic than many people half his age. He makes the rounds of the district on a frequent basis, is likable and never meets a stranger.
No one can accuse him of fiscal irresponsibility. He has turned down his congressional pension and annually returns the funds remaining in his office operational budget. He stays well under budget and yet staffs regional offices as well as his Washington office.
But back in May, local voters cast aside an able and dedicated county commissioner who is -completing her first term in office. The most likely explanation for Cindy Morgan's defeat was backlash against her husband, former state House Co-Speaker Richard Morgan, who served eight terms before his defeat. Morgan made enemies on both sides of the aisle and incurred the wrath of state GOP leaders and a millionaire donor to conservative causes.
Craig Kennedy, Cindy's successful opponent, is a political novice who spent little money and ran a campaign so low-key that it was scarcely noticeable. Yet he won. Kennedy appears to be capable and sincere, and this is no -criticism of him as a candidate or a future county commissioner.
But certainly he did not defeat Cindy because she had served too long, or was incompetent or inactive. In fact, she was one of the hardest-working and most dedicated of the commissioners. The detention center issue is probably her only controversial stand, but the loudest complaints about the jail project came from people who approved of her position. You can't blame the jail issue for Cindy's defeat.
Ideally, officeholders should serve eight to 12 years, then voluntarily and gracefully step aside. Instead, what usually gets in the way is allegiance to loyal supporters and to specific issues, such as education and mental health. Their followers may urge incumbents to continue running for re-election for any number of reasons, including that old familiar bugaboo, special interests. Or they may just plain admire their intelligence, hard work and honesty.
If Americans ever opt for constitutional amendments calling for term limits, the change should probably encompass changes in term lengths as well. Hopefully, that would curb some of the perpetual nature of campaigning and allow members of Congress to concentrate on the business of the country, rather than re-election campaigns.
Frankly, we don't need term limits because we already have term limits. We know this constitutional requirement as the ballot box. Voters who continue to re-elect incompetents deserve the representation they get.
Contact Florence Gilkeson by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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