Term Limits Limit Accountability

A federal system of government is often referred to as a laboratory for democracy. This reference holds because local governing bodies are allowed to vary in their policy decisions so that different policies can be tried out and the successful ones gain wider adoption and the failures are abandoned. With that being the case, we can assess, in part, one consequence of term limits using this method. The hypothesis I put forth is that term limits will allow elected officials to move to their ideological extreme in the official’s final term. Most voters reside somewhere in the middle of the ideological spectrum which means to win office candidates must move to the middle. This is the median voter theory first made famous by Anthony Downs and proven out through countless empirical studies and casual observations alike. Thus, in the final term of a term-limited official's tenure, particularly when that official will not seek higher office, there is no need to court the moderate voter and the official can pursue ideologically extreme policies.

Mayor Annise Parker recently won reelection in Houston and she will be term limited out after this term. There are probably not any offices that she would have a chance of winning. She can’t challenge Sheila Jackson Lee and has no shot at statewide office. This is probably her final stint as an elected official for the near future. So, her first action after winning reelection was to issue a directive that requires health and life benefits to all legally married same sex couples employed by the City of Houston. She did not go through city council or offer an executive order, but simply mandated it through bureaucrats in charge of handling benefits for the city. She couldn’t do this in her first or second terms because of reelection concerns, but there are no such concerns during her third and final term.

Article 1, Section 32 of the Texas state Constitution reads: “Marriage in this state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman. This state or a political subdivision of this state may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage.” And the City of Houston charter reads, “Except as required by state or federal law, the City of Houston shall not provide employment benefits, including health care, to persons other than employees, their legal spouses and dependent children.” Mayor Parker violated state and city law in the pursuit of her ideological ambitions. This is not to enter into a discussion of same sex marriage, but rather, to point out that the mayor violated state and city law because she could; and the reason she could is because of term limits.

The benefit of elections is that they allow us to hold officials accountable, and officials recognize this, and adjust their behavior accordingly. When the threat of election is no longer present oversight is meaningless and officials can act unencumbered. This is the downside of term limits.

There are several factors in the term limit discussion and this is just one of them. However, I would suggest, that this is an argument against term limits that deserves to be considered and debated on its merits and not get muddled down in the discussion by raising alternate issues. The only way we can productively address any issue is to stay focused on a single facet, resolve it, and then move on to another. The only worthwhile approach is a disciplined one.


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