Term Limiting Term Limits?

Yesterday (February 10th) I went to the public forum on term limits for the City of Houston.  This is a big issue, and there is even a push by many to create term limits on the state and federal levels.  So I went to this meeting expecting droves of people voicing their concerns.  Instead, only 21 other people showed up, many of who were city employees or people who were asked to speak to the committee.  The 21 people also included Council Members Bradford and Costello.  (GREAT job by the way for showing up to listen to what people had to say.  As new city council members, I don’t think they were able to appoint representatives to the panel since it was created before they were elected).

So where were all the people??  I think this alludes to the point I made in a previous post about term limits (see post here): people just don’t care that much about city elections.  They hear names of incumbents in the news and vote for them over and over.  This is why only 7 incumbents lost in Houston in the last 26 years, and that is why we need to keep term limits similar to how they are now. 

Here are some highlights of the night:  First, former Council Member Toni Lawrence is on this committee, and she seems to agree with me on my major concerns regarding changes to term limits.  She said on the panel that she would like to see staggered terms so that the entire elected body isn’t potentially term limited (or voted out) at the same time.  I agree.  Robert Wright, who was asked to speak to the panel, said that this would only happen “when Hell freezes over”.  I think that since the potential for this to happen is there, so why not stagger the terms just in case?

Jonathan Day, former City attorney in the 1970s, was also asked to speak.  He wanted to see a change to two, four year terms and not allow someone who is on city council to run for another seat at the same time (ie what Palm Holm, Annise Parker, and Peter Brown did this last election cycle) because they can’t do a good job in office while running for office.  I disagree and maintain that running for office while in office often makes elected officials do a better job in some respects.  Remember the budget squabbles and outspokenness from Holm, Parker, and Brown during the campaign that we didn’t usually see from them before?

Another highlight of the night was from Chris Bell.  He first said that “term limits must go” only to finish his speech by saying that they should have two, four year terms.  He also said that he used to be “all over the map” about this issue.  Used to be?  He also said that he used to be against term limits because right wingers initiated them and that they are “rooted in republican circles”.  Yeah, that’s a great reason to be against something!  We wouldn’t want a non-partisan city council to work together on sound issues, so you should be against everything your political opponents are for!  He also said that Eleanor Tinsley accomplished so much for Houston because of her many years in office.  I agree, but why does one have to be in office to make a difference in Houston?  Maybe Bell’s years as an elected official made him feel this way… If so it’s a good thing we have term limits!

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One Response to Term Limiting Term Limits?

  1. Bert Coslow says:

    Great summary of the evening! Two questions: 1. What is the current law regarding Term Limits for municipal officials now? 2. What is your stance on the issue?

    I agree that Chris’ comments are laughable – “let’s do this because that’s what other Republicans do” – makes sense on a certain level in that on the surface it seems like a way to limit government.

    Personally, I am against statutorily imposed term limits. We already have Term Limits; it’s called the ballot box. TL’s punish success: officials that do a good job get re-elected. Those that do a poor job get defeated. It’s that simple. Furthermore, during my time as a Legislative Aide in Florida (where State Legislators are subject to term limits) I had a front row seat to the effects of term limits (I recall that you work(ed?) for a State Senator so no doubt have first-hand experience as well) In Florida, State Reps are limited to 8 years (4 consecutive terms) in the House. Arguably, it takes 6-8 Sessions (FL has Session every year) just to learn how the whole system works. By the time you become fully effective at working your bills through the process, your time is up. Term Limits punish success.

    Furthermore, a perverse set of consequences derive from Term Limits: for one, with the nearly constant turnover of Legislators, institutional knowledge is relegated to bureaucrats and lobbyists. Thus, lobbyists become more powerful. (Full disclosure: I don’t believe lobbyists are evil- they are in fact, necessary..but that’s a subject for another time) The idea of term limits is that officials get elected, serve their time and then go home. The reality is that term limits incentivize elected officials to essentially “job hunt” time’s up in the House? Maybe there’s a Senate seat coming up. No Senate seat in your District? Try statewide office, or a University Presidency. The overall result of all this “job hunting” is a more average, less exceptional class of office holder. Some Elected Officials are great State Reps, but lousy Senators and vice-versa (extend this analogy to all the various forms of elected and appointed office)

    Term Limits do boot some officials out of office, but in general they punish success and make the whole system more mediocre. Ultimately, we have an electoral system that does its job (the engagement of its Citizens is another matter, but as the “customers” of the process, that’s their right) Keep Term Limits at the ballot box.

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