Far be it from this page to look a gift horse squarely in the mouth, but open wide, equine friend:
Term limits aren’t government reform.
We do not blame Governor Kathy Hochul for saying eight is enough when it comes to years in office for a governor. Her predecessor’s bullying monomania for cementing his legacy by winning the fourth term that eluded his father was his undoing.
She calls for that same two-term limit on the lieutenant governor, attorney general, and comptroller. She ups the ante putative Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin slapped on the table in December — his proposal would, so far, limit only the governor’s time at the helm. Neither yet loops in the state Legislature — a wise political move, given the fact that it’s the state Legislature that would have to approve the deal in the first place before sending to the state’s voters. We doubt they’d agree to vote themselves out of office, but we also think they’d be hard-pressed to carve themselves out if public pressure demanded otherwise.
Term limits are an artificial cap that erases a lawmaker’s ability to gain institutional knowledge or historic perspective on an issue — both key ingredients to sustainable public policy. Instead of taking the time they need to look at more than one angle, the term-limited are under the gun to get something done quickly, usually haphazardly, and only because they’re looking first at the clock that now dominates every decision they make.
It does nothing but change the name on the marquees and throw way too much power into the hands of an already-powerful Capitol staff. Not to diminish the importance and work of the individuals whom we elect to represent us in Albany, but New York’s state government is a staff-driven operation that cements deals on the days that the legislators themselves aren’t in town. Sure, staff will “run it by the boss” or, perhaps, take marching orders now and again — but in the end, you just don’t want to be the one standing in between two warring senior staffers when your cause is on the line.
Staff work is its own cutthroat Machiavellian fiefdom as young committee directors angle for who gets to control what. Within a few years, an ambitious sort can go from coffee-getting-intern to bill-killing potentate holding sway over junior staff, hundreds of bills, and at least a couple-dozen elected state legislators.
It’s the natural state of things: stick around long enough and one gets to make the bigger decisions. And there’s no question that a strong and well-oiled staff is essential to good government at any level. Yet equally essential are lawmakers tenured long enough to counterbalance the monopoly on the inside game that makes the wheels turn. We recognize that term limits can keep the elected themselves from becoming the dangerous masters of that inside game, but take caution: if they go, they leave behind the staffers who carried out the mechanical shenanigans on their behalf.
Arbitrary term limits open the door, too, to lobbyists who often are better at inner workings than even the most seasoned staffer. A good advocate’s charm offensive can be pretty powerful stuff to the uninitiated.
The irony at play here is that many of the same people who fight to ‘let the market decide’ on any number of business issues will stand among those who fight to ‘let the cap decide’ on who should get to be in office and for how long. We do not want to kick someone who is doing a good job out of office simply because his or her “time is up.” Artificial caps don’t work in the marketplace, and they won’t work in politics.