Coming soon to you—term limits

Washington—New York City’s political class, having failed to master the problems engulfing that city, has finally outsmarted something: itself. It counted on courts to relieve it of its democratic duty to debate the issue of term limits. Not smart. On Tuesday the nation’s largest city imposed limits—two consecutive four-year terms, starting now—on its elected officials.

The political class everywhere tries to prevent term-limitation proposals from coming to a vote because limits almost always win. However, New York’s City’s life is so permeated by government that a robust anti-term-limits campaign might have mustered a majority. The fact that New York’s political class failed to stop term limits is a monument to the arrogance of that class.

When supporters of term limits got the requisite number of signatures on petitions, the city government spent tax dollars attempting to get courts to deny taxpayers the right to vote on limits. Politicians assured reporters, who in turn assured editors, that the courts—the first refuge of the politically unpersuasive—would block the initiative. When the courts did not, the media, perhaps feeling misled and wanting to make amends to the public, gave the coming vote on limits heavy coverage.

By then there were only 13 days until the vote. That was not enough time for the political class to mobilize the public employees who prosper from their relationship of mutual aggrandizement with political careerists. New York City has more full-time and part-time public employees—444,000-then Kansas City has residents.

Furthermore, 13 days were not enough time for the political class to terrify all the other people who are, or aspire to be, dependent in various ways on the decisions of the city’s elephantine government. These people include many different groups who might have been susceptible to this argument: You will suffer from the termination of political careerism because careerists are uninhibited about using public spending and other government action to purchase the affections of myriad constituencies, including you.

The constituencies susceptible to such an anti-term-limits campaign include people doing business with the city government. A $31 billion budget can enrich many vendors. The susceptible constituencies include developers, construction unions and anyone else needing government’s approval to do business. And, of course welfare recipients are a constituency for political careerists. John fund of the Wall Street Journal notes that if the city’s 1.1 million welfare recipients were themselves a city, it would be the nation’s eighth largest.

The New York Times attacked term limitation, warning that “limits can foster mediocrity would be a distinct improvement. Reporters, too, seemed hostile to term limits, perhaps because limits mean disruption of comfortable relationships with familiar sources. Also, term limits rest on the assumption that governments can be run by “raw amateurs” rather than “seasonal professionals,” two favorite phrases of opponents of term limits. If so, government is not such a high mystery after all, a mystery requiring a clerisy of journalists to decipher it.

Anyway, on Tuesday New Yorkers did what voters almost invariably do when given the opportunity: They imposed limits. Also on Tuesday three other large jurisdictions were given a chance to impose limits and all three did. Two are counties in New York state—Suffolk on long Island and Monroe, which includes Rochester. Maine imposed limits on its state legislators and some other officials. So term limits came to jurisdictions containing 10 million Americans.

Fourteen states have already imposed limits on their state legislators. Fifteen have imposed limits on their U.S. representatives and senators. Next year other states almost certainly will join the parade. Last year, when term limits for U.S. congressmen and senators were on 14 than Ross Perot got in 50.

Among the hundreds of municipalities with term limits extending beyond their mayors—city councils, etc.—are: Anaheim, Anchorage, Billings, Cincinnati, Colorado Springs, Dallas, El Paso, Fargo, Galveston, Honolulu, Houston, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Lon Beach, New Orleans, Phoenix, St. Petersburg, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Barbara, Syracuse, Tacoma, Tampa and Wichita.

All of this raises two questions. When will Congress abandon the pretense that it is so different, or so successful, or so something that it must be forever exempt from limits? And when will the snowballing successes of the term-limits movement—the most potent grass-roots movement in America today—become so numerous that Congress will be delegitimized if it continues to refuse to send a term-limiting constitutional amendment to the states for debate and decision?