Herb Rothschild Jr.: Pondering term limits

Like most of you, I was saddened by the near coincidence of Peter Buckley’s retirement from the Oregon House and Sen. Alan Bates’ sudden death. But when I heard Pam Marsh and Tonia Moro, the Democratic candidates for these two now-open seats, tell audiences that their predecessors are irreplaceable, I decided that I cannot agree. And thinking about why has led me to the general question of term limits.

Presidents are term limited by the 22nd Amendment, ratified in 1951. In the 1990s there was a wave of voter sentiment for term-limiting other elected officials, and 23 states tried to impose term limits on their members of Congress, but in 1995 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Constitution denied states that power. Governors are term-limited in 36 states, state legislators in 15. Nine of our 10 largest cities term-limit their mayors (Chicago is the exception), as do just over half of cities with 250,000 or more residents.

Obviously, there’s no consensus on this issue, which indicates there’s much to be said on both sides. If there’s a pattern, it’s that we’re readier to term-limit our chief executives than our lawmakers. Reasonably so. Almost always, more power is concentrated in a president or a governor than in a legislator.

Elected officials vary in quality, but even the best aren’t irreplaceable. When I lived in Houston, which term-limits both its mayor and council members, there was no dearth of qualified officeholders. The same is true of our current candidates for the state Legislature. Knowing both, I’m confident that Marsh and Moro can perform as well as their predecessors. And if you didn’t like Bates’ policy positions, you now have a chance to elect Alan DeBoer, who has experience in office and, from all I’ve heard, is intelligent, honorable and public-spirited. (I don’t know Steve Richie, Marsh’s opponent.)

What no freshman can offer are knowledge about how things work in Salem and the clout that comes with seniority. The former can be soon remedied by hard work. The latter is one of the contested points about term limits. If you like your incumbents, you want them to have excess influence. If you don’t, you wish they didn’t. As Harry Truman once quipped, “Term limits would cure both senility and seniority — both terrible legislative diseases.”

For a concisely presented list of arguments on both sides, visit . The list of pros there, however, doesn’t sufficiently emphasize reducing the influence of money, which should be our primary concern. I think term limits would. Starting on Day One, fundraising is a daily chore for congressional incumbents. They say they hate it but they do it. Estimates are that it takes on average 15-20 percent of their time. So for at least their final terms in office, our members of Congress could work at their jobs, not their re-elections. More important, they would be free to advance the public interest as they see it rather than the interests of their large donors.

The more populous the district, usually the more money required to win. So I’d surely term-limit statewide offices and seats in Congress. For the latter, I suggest three two-year terms as representative and two six-year terms as senator. But I’m inclined to term-limit most offices. Putting them in play more often, I think, would increase engagement in public life.

— Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.

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