editorial (2006-25)

Term Limits Put to the Test

The Supreme Court Already Has the People’s Answer

Term Limits Put to the Test

Term limits are here to stay in Knox County. The voters determined that decisively 12 years ago. The only questions that remain to be settled are when they go into effect and whom all they affect.

Those may seem large questions, and they are. But the people of Knox County who voted more than three to one to limit their elected officeholders to two terms in office didn’t realize that that precise, unambiguous statement could be construed as invalid.

The state Supreme Court has removed most doubt about the answers, citing the Tennessee Constitution’s provision that the people of this state have the perfect right to alter or abolish their government, including their local governmental institutions. But it appears we may have to wait until the Supreme Court reviews this county and its Charter specifically.

Term limits is a concept that is paradoxically popular. It arbitrarily removes the voters’ right to return incumbents to office ad nauseum, which is what voters usually do. Establishing term limits, as was done here in both city and county referenda, seems to be a reminder that voters have given themselves to prevent people from becoming professional politician/officeholders. Otherwise, the voters could simply vote against incumbents who have served two terms. But that idea must have been too confusing or complicated for them, and they opted for mandatory limits.

The arbitrary nature of term limits is its chief drawback. People who are genuinely committed to public service through elected office may not be returned to that office more than twice, regardless of how they or their constituents feel about it.

The advantage of term limits lies in its prevention of fiefdoms from forming around a single office. Eight years—two consecutive terms in office—may not be a long time politically, but it’s a long time in the real world.

What such limits as Knox County voters have approved, then, insure that elected officeholders stay in touch with that real world and its ordinary people, rather than become insulated inside a little sphere populated almost entirely by politicos and political contributors. That staying in touch with reality and real people is certainly not a bad thing.

Term limits, which apply to the President of the United States and the governors of most states, including Tennessee, would have a profound effect on the U.S. Congress and the legislatures of the several states. If people could not be returned to legislative office over and over, the result would be a Tennessee General Assembly and a Congress made up of citizen-lawmakers of the kind envisioned by the founding fathers.

Simple limits to a couple or three terms in office could keep lawmakers at the national and state level closer to their constituencies, to the people who send them off to do the public’s will or explain why they can’t. That, in itself, can tend to make government more responsive.

We call the ultimate term under established limitations the “lame duck” term. It sounds more negative than it is, meaning that it was probably a phrase coined by political professionals.

It is a time when the officeholder may opt to do little or nothing in the way of advancing legislation or enforcing laws, leaving the public unserved in practical matters. But it is also a time when members of the legislative or executive branch can push for reforms or public expenditures that would render them unelectable, even though the public good may be served by their actions.

An example would be the institution of a progressive, graduated income tax, based on earnings, that might be patently unpopular with the electorate. But an income tax would allow for the reduction in other, more regressive taxes, such as the level-percentage sales tax, which falls more heavily on the poor, and on which Tennessee relies for the bulk of its revenue. It’s believed that only a lame-duck governor would be able to turn such bold tax reform into reality. The hitch to that theory is that a lame-duck executive loses some clout with the legislative body that he or she held when eligible for reelection.

There are pluses and minuses for both open elections and term limits. But those issues seem to be moot in Knox County, where the term-limits referendum firmly established the will of the people. And there appears no reason to think another referendum here would produce a different outcome, regardless of what steps county officials might take to thwart the term-limits institution.

We are going to have term-limited officeholders in the county. The operative question is when. The sooner the better, if a majority of the people are heard. That will probably take an unequivocal edict from the state Supreme Court. Let’s get that issue before the court as quickly as possible and have it settled, once and for all.