Monday, October 20, 2008

The Limits of Term Limits in Manhattan and NYC

While there are many good arguments for term limits, Manhattan Viewpoint believes that the arguments against term limits are superior. Nonetheless, the people of the City of New York have spoken loudly and clearly on two recent occasions to demonstrate that they favor term limits in NYC that limited elected officials to a maximum of 8 consecutive years of service and one successful re-election effort as an incumbent. The elected leadership of NYC would abuse their authority to test the limits of their power by overturning term limits without a vote of the people.

Term Limits - A Bad Idea Whose Time Came in NYC

The National Constitutional Convention of 1787 considered limiting the terms of members of Congress and the President. The participants at the convention decided against the idea, but the debate never ended.

The arguments in favor of term limits are based on the concept that incumbency advantage (which is real and observable) is unfair and corrosive. Lord Acton said that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and term limits are part of a theory of reducing the sense of absolute power for elected officials. Many proponents of term limits also argue that unlimited tenure prevents fresh faces from joining in the governing process. One might view proponents of terms limits as generally pessimistic about the quality of their elected officials; because those that are elected will generally be "bums", a policy that throws elected officials out of office based on the passage of time since their first election is a perpetual (and effective) "throw the bums out" mechanism. Lord Acton's famous quotation ends with "Great men are almost always bad men."

The arguments opposing terms limits center around voter choice. Such opponents often argue that voters have the opportunity to limit terms at every election and that voters should not be told that they cannot elect their favorite candidate simply because that candidate has earned their support in the past. One of the basic tenets of republican democracy is that elected officials work to serve the needs and desires of their constituents in order to be re-elected. Elected officials who are repeatedly re-elected may be viewed as experts in serving their constituents. Throwing out long-serving elected officials because of their long tenure suggests that success in being re-elected and years of experience in office are threats rather than benefits to the constituents served by those officials. Such a policy also suggests that voters are incapable of properly identifying the best candidates for the the next term of office and that a blanket prohibition of continuing service is needed to protect voters from their own poor choices.

Manhattan Viewpoint believes that voters should have the authority to choose their elected officials from pools of candidates that include those they've elected in the past, and Manhattan Viewpoint sees value in experience in office as well as in the infusion of new energy and new people into the community of elected officials.

However, Manhattan Viewpoint respects the power and majesty of democracy too much to endorse a weakening of term limits that a transparent and fully democratic process has supported and refused to weaken. The voters of New York City adopted term limits in 1993 and re-affirmed their support for them in 1996 (in 1996, the voters rejected an attempt to extend term limits from 8 years to 12 years).

Second Thoughts and Do-Overs

The day after voters adopted term limits by a 60% to 40% landslide in 1993, the Speaker of the City Council suggested a second referendum might be proposed to overturn term limits.

The 1996 referendum was just such an effort, but rather than looking to eliminate term limits, the 1996 referendum was designed to reduce their impact by creating staggered terms in the City Council in addition to the aforementioned extension from 8 years to 12 years. Term limits of 8 years won again; the margin was substantial, but it was smaller than the margin in 1993. The proponents of term limits started to see their success in New York City as a mechanism for making major changes in Albany , but the momentum didn't transfer.

The terrorist attacks of September 2001 gave Mayor Giuliani the excuse he needed to suggest that his terms should not be limited, but his efforts failed.

Now, it is 2008, and Mayor Bloomberg is arguing that the financial meltdown that has recently gripped Wall Street and the looming recession are appropriate excuses for his term of office to be extended beyond the limits set by the two referenda of the 1990's. Christine Quinn, the current City Council Speaker, announced a week ago that she would support the Bloomberg proposal that all term limits be extended to 12 years in NYC. She is advocating that the City Council make the change to the term limit laws on their own and without a referendum. Her new position doesn't easily mix with her statement of less than a year ago that, "The voters have made their will very, very clear" regarding term limits.

Respect the Will of The People

Though the City Charter doesn't demand it, the City Council would be wise to leave the decision to overturn term limits to another referendum. The people of the City of New York are the only entity that can be trusted to overturn the results of the previous two referenda, and no changes that weaken term limits should be implemented without the consent of the people who first approved them and then refused to weaken them a few years later.

Manhattan Viewpoint is joined in its view by Citizens Union and by our Friend of Manhattan, Assemblyman Hakeem Jefferies of Brooklyn. Assemblyman Jefferies is proposing a new state law that would require all municipalities in NY State that have local term limits to submit changes to those term limits laws to a referendum.

While Manhattan Viewpoint endorses the proposal of Assemblyman Jefferies, we continue to oppose term limits. Therefore, if Citizens Union, Assemblyman Jefferies, and the other supporters of the referendum-based approach favored by Manhattan Viewpoint are successful in forcing the City Council to let the people of our great city decide this issue, you should be unsurprised to see us using this forum to persuade you to support the referendum's substance (and the weakening of term limits in NYC) while cheering the triumph of democratic principals and cheering the fact that the final decision will be in the hands of the people rather than in the hands of the very same City Council that was a primary target of these term limits from the outset.

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