I’m for term limits, but my wife, Melissa, is really for them. One six-year term for everybody, and then they should return to real life, she says. To illustrate, she recently asked this: What if jurors were elected?
Let’s explore that. With juries, legal amateurs temporarily are entrusted with life and death decisions because, when it comes to justice, experience is less important than integrity, and integrity is a tough thing to hold onto when a person has a stake in an outcome. Juries sometimes decide badly — even terribly, historically — but they serve as an important check and balance on judges and prosecutors.
So, what if jurors were elected, and then re-elected again and again? Would factions develop and votes be traded? Would jury candidates promise to be tough on crime, or to support workers against big business, or vice versa?
No, we don’t want professional jurors. We want them to serve briefly with integrity and then return to real life. In other words, we want their terms to be limited.
Moving from the hypothetical to the electoral, Arkansas legislators this past session referred to voters a constitutional amendment that would, take a deep breath, prohibit corporate contributions to candidates, prohibit legislators and constitutional officers from accepting gifts from lobbyists, lengthen from one year to two the time ex-legislators must wait to become lobbyists, and create a commission for setting elected officials’ salaries.
It also modifies Arkansas’ term limits law, and that’s where it’s running into problems.
Under current law, House members serve no more than three two-year terms, while senators serve two four-year terms. That’s 14 years total, with another two years possible for some senators because districts are redrawn after every 10-year census.
The proposed ethics amendment would change the law so a lawmaker can spend a total of 16 years in office, divided however he or she can get elected. Sixteen years could be spent in one chamber.
There are legitimate arguments for passage. Some legislators say current term limits are too restrictive and that by the time they know their way around the House or Senate, it’s time to leave. Arkansas needs veterans in each chamber with institutional memory, for example, of when the state spent years in court over school finances. As the author George Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
On the other hand, 16 years in one chamber — that’s the kind of entrenchment voters sought to end when 60 percent voted for term limits in 1992. If legislators have too much time to learn to work the system, then pretty soon, some will work the system to their advantage. On the plus side, the Legislature needs a constant remixing of fresh ideas and new energy.
True, voters could vote out a bad legislator during those 16 years, but we all know how things work in real life. A legislator gains seniority, wins friends, and builds up a campaign war chest. Potential opponents calculate the odds and decide against running.
It’s noteworthy that no one is talking seriously about repealing term limits entirely. In 2004, voters were asked merely to extend the terms. More than 70 percent said no.
The term limits provision probably will sink the measure. A March poll by Talk Business and Hendrix College found that 69 percent of Arkansans would support a hypothetical proposal that contained some of the ethics-related measures that will be on the ballot, minus the term limits. But when a poll in October described the entire initiative with the term limits, support fell to 32 percent.
Some parts of the proposal would have broad support, such as those seeming to create a more ethical lobbying environment.
Will those provisions overcome the measure’s term limits problem? Voters next November will serve as judge and jury over that.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.