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View from around the state: No limit on debate of term limits

The debate over term limits for state and federal elected officials has been around for a long time.

Proponents of term limits have solid arguments to support their position, as do the people who oppose term limits. It’s a debate that probably will never end because term limits are about as likely to occur as a Detroit Lions Super Bowl appearance.

Ironically, the United States already has term limits — for the highest office in the land. Ever since old FDR went to the well for a fourth term, the good people of this great country decided eight years was enough for one president to serve.

Proposing term limits is a great way for a candidate to create a sound bite that resonates with voters. Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Neumann recently raised the issue and got statewide coverage of his proposal to limit Wisconsin lawmakers and constitutional officers to no more than 12 years in office.

Governors would be limited to two four-year terms under Neumann’s proposal.

Clearly, the Wisconsin electorate supports the concept of term limits. A study by the conservative interest group the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute found 72 percent of poll respondents support term limits.

Some politicians subject themselves to self-imposed term limits. Neumann served two terms in the U.S. Congress before moving on to other endeavors. If elected governor, he certainly would have the bully pulpit to be able to push the agenda for term limits. But the power to impose term limits on elected officials rests with the Wisconsin Legislature and the U.S. Congress.

And that’s the problem. Most state and federal elected officials are career politicians. The founders of this country, when establishing our democracy, were citizen politicians. They were farmers and businessmen who served their country out of a sense of loyalty.

Getting enough legislators at the state or federal level to impose term limits on themselves is not likely. It’s called job security. The perks and pay that go along with an elected position — especially at the federal level — are indeed lucrative. In any given election, the vast majority of incumbents are re-elected. It’s a great contradiction. While a majority of voters support term limits, they continue to re-elect the politicians in their respective districts.

For example, following the 2008 election, only two of Wisconsin’s 33 senators and 14 of the 99 representatives were newcomers, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau. Coincidentally, two of those freshman members of the Assembly are local legislators, and their views on term limits are representative of the debate.

Rep. Ed Brooks, R-Reedsburg, a year into his first term in office, welcomes limiting legislators’ terms as a way to ensure turnover and increase the likelihood of new ideas from freshmen such as himself.

“(Turnover) brings a freshness to the Capitol,” he said. “I think it’s good, it’s healthy, it makes people say, ‘OK, I’m a new enough candidate I have to work hard to get re-elected.'”

Longtime legislators, Brooks said, risk complacency.

“The idea that you’ve been there 20 years and you’re a closet full of good ideas is maybe overrated,” Brooks said.

On the other hand, Rep. Fred Clark, D-Baraboo, also in his first term, does not support term limits. Though he agrees that new faces in government bring new perspectives and experiences to the discussion table, the thought of limiting incumbents to any number of years would be “arbitrary” and could potentially undermine the democratic process.

“(Term limits) really take the power away from voters,” Clark said. “It’s up to the voters that every elected official represents to decide how long they should serve in office.”

In addition, he said, veteran legislators have experience that is necessary in helping write and pass laws.

Perhaps we should consider a plan under which incumbents, after a certain number of terms in office, would be required to receive something more than a simple majority of the votes. For example, after three terms in the U.S. Congress, an incumbent would be required to receive 55 percent of the vote in order to be re-elected. That would mean a wildly popular and respected politician would be able to serve, presumably, as long as the super majority of voters wanted.

Some people might argue that such a concept violates the “one man, one vote” principle on which this country was established. Well, as we found out in the 2000 presidential election, the candidate who receives the most votes isn’t always declared the winner.


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