Pros and Cons of Term Limits

As you may have noticed, former Republican Gubernatorial candidate Bud Pierce has filed a ballot measure proposal to implement term limits in Oregon. The proposal would make it so any individual would only be able to serve 8 years in the legislature in any 12 year period. Essentially making it so after every 8 years of service an individual would have to take 4 years off before seeking office in the legislature again.

Personally, I have not made up my mind on this issue, so let’s dig into it a bit. The main argument for term limits is to “drain the swamp” of career politicians and get new blood into the system. Elected officials who are not constantly worried about getting reelected are freer to make tough decisions and possibly get us better public policy. Many factors including gerrymandering, the campaign finance structure, and nature of our two-party system make it very difficult to unseat incumbents. Outside of a handful of swing districts, many legislators will go term after term without seeing an opponent in either the primary or general election races. Term limits are one solution to ousting some of these very comfortable incumbents. Oregon is a citizen legislature and that is a great feature of our system. Term limits would help to maintain that status and strike a blow to many thriving off of the status quo in politics. Additionally knowing ahead of time when incumbents are leaving office could lead to more competitive primaries and reduce sitting legislators hand picking their replacements.

On the other hand, being a legislator has a steep learning curve. Assuming it takes a term or two to get your feet under you as a legislator an 8-year limit could remove some of the most popular and effective legislators from office just as they were reaching their prime. When I think about all the great Republican legislators who were elected on the 2010 Tea Party wave, it makes me uneasy thinking that they would be prevented from seeking reelection this next year. Additionally, this proposal would apply to both houses of the legislature, so an individual who served two terms in the House would only be able to serve one term in the Senate. The Senate is meant to be the chamber of more experienced elder statesman, but this proposal would make it so we could only elect people with only two terms in the House, folks who had not served in the legislature at all, or blasts from the past who have been out of the game for four years or more.

In principle, I am a supporter of Term Limits as a policy. I don’t think individuals sitting in seats for decades and decades is good for our society. More new voices should be given a chance to be heard and more accomplished individuals should have opportunities to serve our state in the legislature and not just those who happen to be living in the right place when a seat opens up. We could be missing out on some great leaders who will never have the opportunity to rise up because they sit in a district where the current office holder has no plans to leave. That being said I am worried that this specific proposal is too restrictive. If the limits were set at 12 years or calculated years served in the House or Senate separately I would feel a lot better about the measure. I’m concerned that special interests and lobbyist would be able to take advantage of crops of relatively inexperienced legislators who don’t have as many elder statesmen to guide them along. I am worried that we could take some of our best and brightest out of the game just as they are becoming the best legislators they can be.

I would be more than happy to support another proposal for term limits, but I will really have to do some thinking about this one.

Jacob Vandever is political activist, lifelong Oregonian, and proud Oregon State graduate. Jacob is the Editor of the Oregon Upstart Blog.