Georgia's iconic Gold Dome. AJC/Bob Andres. Greg Bluestein/Political Insider blog
Photo: Greg Bluestein/Political Insider blog
Photo: Greg Bluestein/Political Insider blog

Opinion: Term limits won’t solve the real problem

There’s a newcomer under the Gold Dome this year. He’s a polite fellow with a rather quixotic pursuit: Persuading state legislators to endorse a Constitutional Convention to create term limits.

Now, the idea isn’t to limit their own terms, but those for members of Congress. So, he’s having a bit of success. But while term limits are a popular idea, I’ve come to believe they’re the wrong prescription for the wrong disease.

“Career politicians” are easy to rail against. But in truth, not many people win and then occupy a single office for decades at a time. Oh, they might win a series of offices in a row, but that’s different — and not the kind of thing term limits would necessarily address.

The lack of staying power was evident this past week, as Republican and Democratic candidates for state or federal office in Georgia this year had to qualify for their races. Most incumbents signed their names and paid their qualifying fees to run again. The story was how many didn’t.

In the state House, 16 Republicans opted not to seek re-election. That might not sound like so many, out of 116 total House Republicans; it’s almost 14 percent. Of greater note, perhaps, was that 10 of the retirees are committee chairmen, posts coveted by lawmakers. They include the heads of the Education, Regulated Industries and both Judiciary committees, plum positions all.

If you’re still not convinced this represents significant change, or if you think it might be something of a one-off, consider this: Just 20 percent of House members have been in office more than 15 years, including most of the impending retirees. More than half were sworn into office within the last five years.

There’s much less movement from the Senate this year, but it was only in 2010 that we saw something of a mass exodus on that side of the building. As a result, only one in six senators have been in office more than 15 years. As in the House, half of our state senators have been in office five years or less.

People leave for all sorts of reasons. Some run for higher office. But for most others, the workload grows too large, the drives and time away from their family and real jobs too long (especially for South Georgia members), or their own age too high for them to want to continue. The pay, at about $17,000 per year, isn’t all that great, either. Taken together, these factors ensure what is supposed to be a temporary, part-time job as a citizen legislator remains just that for most.

Here, I need to make a confession. I began this column under the impression it was different in Washington. It is, but just barely.

In both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate, the median member has been in office seven years — more than the five years in Georgia, but not by much. And only about a quarter of each chamber’s membership has been there more than 15 years.

So, back to term limits. Given that these offices already are turning over within a decade in most cases, what’s the real issue we ought to try to solve?

If it’s that lawmakers are too powerful, the antidote is to limit the scope of their power, not their time in office. If it’s that lawmakers, particularly in Washington, have become too insulated from the people they represent, the solution might be having them spend more time among their constituents and less time finding laws to tinker with, as we do in Georgia with our 40-day sessions each year.

In short, it’s not so much about limiting their number of terms, but what they do during the terms they do serve.

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