Term limits throw out the baby with the bath water. What if there were a better way?

Joseph N. Abraham MD, University of LouisianaThere is a chronic problem with politics. It's the power of the incumbent. Once someone is elected to office, the chances of the candidate being unseated by a challenger decreases with each successful reelection. The consensus is, that this often leads to complacency, to laziness, and even to graft.

So an increasing number of states have instituted term limits: so many terms in office, and you can't stand for reelection. Recurrent efforts at instituting these limits at the Federal level have failed, with the exception of the Oval Office. After FDR, presidents have been limited to two terms.

Political observers, however, have noted these limits are not entirely a good thing. Edmund Burke pointed out that skillful governance is a trade, a profession even; there is much to learn about running government. It takes at least two years for most elected freshmen to learn even the basics of a job. To learn enough to move into a position of real effectiveness may take 10 years or more.

Currently in Louisiana, our own term limits have just started kicking in, producing a madhouse turnover of the legislative branch, and a loss of all real seniority. The consensus among the pundits is that the winners here will be the lobbyists: they are the only ones left with any long-term experience in state policy. Shifting from incumbent to lobbyists, somehow, does not seem to be what reformers were aiming for.

But there is another problem facing our government today: increasingly acrimonious partisanship. We have reached a point where trying to win the game has become more important than the game itself; victory for one party or the other is more important than being American. We are so busy trying to win skirmishes over our differences, we ignore the overwhelming number of issues where most of us agree.

Bald EagleSo here's a suggestion that might address both problems: Extendable Term Limits. When a candidate reaches the end of standard term limits, he/she may run again-- if a consensus, private vote of the body in which the candidate serves permits it.  The first post-limit try, the candidate needs a simple majority.  But every election after that, the required consensus increases by, say, 3%. So first post-limit permission requires more than 50% of the concerned house; next time, more than 53%; then 56%, and so on.

And for the executive office, perhaps candidacy beyond the basic term limits would require those percentages of both houses.

Every freshman representative will be confronted with a long-range choice. Play hardball, take your three strikes, and leave the arena. Or, completely abandon the sports mentality, where 'win-win' does not exist, and begin collaborating; begin leading.

Net effect? Increased leadership and collaboration, decreased politics and partisanship.  The deadwood & the dirtballs, will find themselves limited to a very few terms. They will exert very little influence, and quickly leave.

Only those elected officials who show true leadership, those who reach across the aisle, those who build consensus, those who focus on agreement, not acrimony-- those will be the people who will move into increasing positions of power. And the number of their terms will directly correlate with the vision and skill they bring to the job.