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With term limits, boot out career pols

Updated: September 5, 2013 12:42AM

In Illinois we have a new issue to go along with state and city budget crises, progressive taxes and pension reform. It is a proposed referendum to limit the terms of members of the Illinois House and Senate, along with reducing the size of the Legislature and strengthening the governor’s veto power.

The term-limit proposal will no doubt be opposed by the political establishment based, among other things, on a 1994 decision by a divided (4 to 3) Illinois Supreme Court that tightly limited referendums to “structural and procedural” subjects set forth in Article IV of the state Constitution.

Some will say: “If term limits are OK for the presidency, why not here?” Others will respond: “Why shouldn’t I be able to vote for someone with a long track record who’s done a good job?”

According to pollsters, proposals to establish legislative term limits are extremely popular, both nationally and in Illinois. The interesting question is — why?

I think the polls reflect more than an unfocused general disgust with official corruption — a desire to “throw all the bums out.” They reflect something important about how people regard their governing institutions.

Citizens want our federal and state governments to decide things — big things — such as what governments should and should not do and how to pay for it. That means making hard choices sure to be unpopular with some constituent group.

To oversimplify only a little: When some legislators want to cut the size of government and others want to maintain or increase it and nobody wants to pay for it, the risk is that we wind up with government programs that cannot be cut, not enough money to pay for them, and deficit financing (borrowing) that shifts costs to future generations. We wind up like Greece and Illinois and, increasingly, Chicago.

Legislators don’t like to make anybody unhappy, let alone expose themselves to greater risk of being voted out of office.

Being a legislator is the best job many incumbents could ever hope for. It isn’t regarded as a part-time, temporary position any more. It’s a lifetime career, a jewel to be protected. It represents power, money, prestige, travel, pensions, adulation and much more — and sometimes much worse.

Citizens instinctively understand that if elected office were less valuable, legislators might be more willing to put themselves at risk — to make tough choices when the public interest requires it.

Term limits would make elected office less of a career, and therefore less valuable. But would it be enough less in value to free up legislators to do the jobs they are elected to do?

Perhaps a better question is: Why should we have to impose term limits to motivate legislators to do their jobs? We ask our armed forces to put their lives on the line to serve their country. We expect our police and our firemen to do the same. Shouldn’t our legislators be willing to do the right thing, even if it means they might have to start buying their own lunches?

Maybe the answer is to elect more folks who aren’t career politicians: more folks who regard public service as a fiduciary duty, rather than a hunting license.

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