Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series of blog posts by PHP writers for NoLabels.org, a PHP content partner.
Hyper-partisanship is killing this country.
Then again, you already believe that if you’re reading the No Labels blog. What we need to know now is how we fix this problem, and solutions to the issue abound, including everything from banning lobbying in all its forms to calling off elections until this country’s fiscal problems are solved. (All right, so that one was probably a bit facetious.) Two particular suggestions, however, seem to get bandied about more than others: term limits and public financing. Both have their own vocal supporters, and both have some serious advantages and drawbacks.
I’ll start with term limits, as they are more familiar to more people than the intricacies of public campaign finance. Indeed, Americans are highly familiar with term limits, as we encounter them every time a president has served for two terms. Executive term limits are an integral part of American democracy, and they have become a major part of our political life on the state and city level. What is less universal is the legislative term limit. In the United States, some 15 states have instituted such limits. Such restrictions, at least in theory, serve two purposes: they prevent the corruption of elected officials by power and avoid complacency, both of which seem to come with incumbency.
In practice, states with legislative term limits are a mixed bunch. The 15 includes such traditional basket case states as California, Florida and Ohio in addition to states with saner legislatures, including Maine and Nebraska. Moreover, Massachusetts, whose legislators are notoriously civil, had term limits until 1997 (the Bay State’s functional legislature is something of a tradition). The examples are even more mixed among states where there are no legislative term limits, including wild and woolly New York and Wisconsin in addition to the decidedly uninteresting Vermont and Idaho legislatures.
It would appear, then, that simply having or not having term limits on the legislature is not the answer. When you look at term limits, however, some patterns do emerge. Oklahoma, a state with very little political notoriety to speak of, allows its state representatives and senators to serve for 12 years, as does Louisiana (albeit not the best example of a functional state government, but that’s largely a problem with the executive branch). Compare this with California, which allows six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate, and Florida, which caps legislators at eight years in either house.
More relevant than whether or not there are term limits is how long those term limits are. If the limits are too short, it will simply be impossible for legislators to gain a meaningful grasp of the government. Worse still, in cases like California, where legislators can serve in both houses for the full term limits, members of the lower house are always looking for their next opportunity in the upper house.
A relatively good model for legislative term limits might be Nevada, which allows for six two-year terms in the House and three four-year terms in the Senate, for a total of 12 years in each house. This gets around several problems. One, 12 years is certainly enough time to get to know a chamber, allowing legislators to work together and know what they are doing. Two, by allowing more than two terms in either house, Nevada has created a system where incumbents have some comfort that they will probably be reelected at least once, but do not fall into the complacency of being assured a seat. Admittedly, Nevada is not a perfect model insofar as its legislature is part time and only meets every other year, but the basics of the model work well.
Public campaign financing, as its name would suggest, endeavors to address the problem of money’s often-questionable influence on the political process. There are variations in the nature and extent of public campaign financing, but the basic gist is this: government, be it local, state, or federal, provides money to campaigns out of the public coffers. Sometimes this is the campaigns’ entire war chest, and sometimes governments provide only partial or matching funding, but in all cases, there is some limit on the private funding that campaigns can take.
The appeal of such a system is readily apparent, especially in the wake of Citizens United. Why not level the playing field and completely eliminate the major, super-wealthy donors whose whims and wishes determine the winners and losers? There is also reason to believe that such a move would also work against corruption insofar as the glorified kickbacks that revolve around major campaign donors would simply have no reason to exist.
Public financing, of course, has its drawbacks. First and foremost among these is a matter of First Amendment rights. As much as the Citizens United ruling is patently ridiculous, an argument can nevertheless be made that individuals, especially those contributing at relatively low levels, have some right to express themselves politically through contributions. And the Supreme Court has upheld that notion by striking down Vermont’s strictest-in-the-nation public financing laws.
Moreover, does public financing actually work? Case studies of the few examples in the United States would seem to indicate that its effects are rather limited. In Maine, New Jersey and Arizona, all of which have instituted various public finance reforms, stated goals including increased competitiveness and better representation of women simply did not occur. To be fair, the sample sizes, both in terms of states with real public financing and election cycles since such reforms were implemented, are small, and it is even more difficult to assess the impact that such legislation has had on corruption. That said, it is clear that incumbents still benefit from their incumbency and more… interesting candidates receive unwarranted support.
It should be clear, now, that although term limits and public financing are good ideas, at least in theory, neither seems to be that good at solving the problems of contemporary American politics, at least not by themselves. Rather, like most ideas, they should be used in tandem with one another, drawing from multiple viewpoints to come to a workable solution.
Original link: http://nolabels.org/blog/fixing-problems