Harriet Lloyd: Term Limits and Purging Rhode Island’s Career Legislators
Thursday, August 23, 2012
Albert Einstein purportedly said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” That premise speaks volumes about Rhode Island’s voting population because, this election season, candidates for 29 of the 113 (26%) seats in the General Assembly are running unopposed. The numbers break down this way: in the Senate, 9 of 38 seats (24%), and in the House, 20 of 75 seats (27%). Sadly, in a year of unprecedented fiscal catastrophe, electing the same people repeatedly indicates that a frighteningly large number of Rhode Islanders either are content to sit at the bottom of the national heap, have given up entirely, or daresay, need the proverbial ‘check-up-from-the-neck-up’.
Indeed, the Ocean State is beset by a culture of ‘career legislators’, who lack the expertise and resolve to right the sinking ship – a ship with voters so disgusted and disillusioned, many have simply given up hope. This is not to say that unopposed candidates are necessarily unworthy; rather, it is a comment on how poorly citizens are served by a lack of healthy rotation of leadership and qualified people willing to run for important public offices.
In Rhode Island, the average state senator has held office for five terms, or 10 years. Five have been in office 20 or more years, including one who has spent 26 years there; eleven have been in office for 12 to 18 years; and four for 8 to 10 years. In the House, the average tenure is 9 years; sixteen representatives have been in office for 20 years or more, including one who’s been there 28 years; eight have been in office for 12 to 18 years; and, seven have served for 8 to 10 years.
Due to a culture of career legislators, Rhode Island’s schools, municipalities, businesses and families have endured corruption, scandal, neglect and abuse while taxes and government spending have soared out of control. Clearly, the 2012 legislative session did little, if anything, to address the people’s pain. Thus, the topic of term limits has sparked renewed debate in coffee shops and barrooms around the state as a potential means of bringing fresh air and renewal to the State House and purging worn-out, ineffectual politicians too comfortably enjoying their power and perks like free healthcare.
Fifteen U.S. states have imposed term limits ranging from six to eight years upon their legislators. Six states have a lifetime ban against ever running for a legislative seat when one has met the term limit; nine permit a legislator who has met the term limit in one chamber to run for a seat in the other; and eight of the ten largest cities in America have adopted term limits for their city councils and/or mayors.
Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson supported congressional term limits, “to prevent every danger which might arise to American freedom by continuing too long in office the members of the Continental Congress.” George Mason advised limits on the number of terms in Congress, saying, "Nothing can be so essential to the preservation of a Republican government as a periodic rotation (of its members)."
Essentially, legislators of the 18th and 19th centuries imposed term limits upon themselves, as they were working people paid only about six dollars per year and had a lifespan too short to serve multiple terms. Today’s Rhode Islanders can expect long-lived career politicians, special interests and lobbyists to defiantly oppose term limits that force them out of lucrative and influential legislative seats. Clearly, to rein in the corruption, power and privileges that come with serving too long in a political office, a thorough and public examination of term limits and other potential reforms must take place.
Rhode Island’s Constitution provides that, every ten years, there will be a referendum on whether a Constitutional Convention should be convened to consider issues of good government practices, as well as economic and social issues. It has been 30 years since the last one (at which delegates reduced the number of legislators from 152 to 113), but another opportunity will arrive in 2014. The time may be at-hand to give thoughtful and thorough review to term limits and other measures regarding the composition and practices of the General Assembly. Should voters decide they want change, now is the time to frame those issues – before the same entrenched legislators just get ten years older.
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