Today’s column is pretty close to falling in the “hot take” category. A hot take is when someone writes “a piece of deliberately provocative commentary based entirely on shallow moralizing.” At least that’s Wikipedia’s definition and I’m not going to argue with that bit of consensus.
I’m going to provide more than shallow moralizing but I will admit that today’s column steps out on an island, but I feel it is important to do so. Sometimes it is valuable to stand up and say that research has found the general consensus to be incorrect. Today I am that messenger. So get your vegetables ready to hurl.
Term limits are a bad idea and Oklahoma would be better off if we abolished them.
Term limits, at least for state legislatures, became popular in the 1990s. For governorships they stretch back further than that. We even have one term limit, the prohibition of serving more than two terms as president, amended into the Constitution.
Term limits come about for a couple of reasons. The first is the incumbency advantage. While incumbency has weakened as a political force it is still true that the vast majority of people who are running for re-election (i.e. the incumbents) ultimately win. The second probably comes from the fact that a lot of people dislike politicians. A common refrain I hear from people is that, “Oh they are all corrupt.” Well, no. They are not. But a lot of voters feel that way and in a democracy policies that a majority of voters support tend to get made into law.
The problem with term limits is that being a legislator is really hard. Sure, anyone can record videos in their truck complaining about things. If you complain loudly and effectively you can even get elected by complaining. Governing is something different. The process of governing requires consensus building, working together and the crafting of policies in accordance with existing legal codes. It is hard. It is doubly hard in Oklahoma where you have to cram all that activity into a brief window in the spring because the Legislature does not meet year-round. So how does someone become a better legislator? They practice. Just like everything, they learn through doing.
I am a better professor today than I was when Cameron hired me in 2019. You are probably better at your job than you were when you first got hired. Why? Because you’ve done it over and over. In political science we called this professionalism. In less professional legislators (the ones with term limits) you end up with a more chaotic mess and the people with the most expertise are lobbyists from interest groups. Less professionalized legislators are less responsive to the general public because they simply are not as good as legislating as the ones with more experience. Think of the brain drain that we force out of the Oklahoma Legislature every two years.
At this point a person will often say, “But some politicians are bad. Shouldn’t we have some mechanism for removing them?” Absolutely you should be able to remove a politician, and you do not need term limits for it. You have elections. Every member of the Oklahoma Legislature has to run for re-election and you, the voters, can vote for someone else. Regardless of your feeling about Gov. Stitt, the fact remains that among Oklahomans who showed up to vote in November a majority of them re-elected him. In 2020 that did not happen with President Trump. The American public did not need term limits. We had an election and changed the person in power. That is democracy.
If you think your politician is bad, then vote for someone else. Too often we, the general public, forget how much power we actually have in the American political system. We don’t need term limits. If the people of Atoka think Charles McCall is doing a good job then why should the rest of the state dictate to them that they must elect someone else because his time limit is up? If Lawton wants to keep sending Daniel Pae back to the Oklahoma legislator until he is a little old legislator, then why should people in Durant be able to dictate that to us?
If you are dissatisfied with your representative, then by all means you should vote that person out. But term limits don’t make government less corrupt. Instead they make it easier for special interests to take over and we cannot vote those out. You may now hurl the tomatoes.
David Searcy holds a master’s degree from Oklahoma State University and a PhD in political science from Southern Illinois University.