Stop Us from Making Decisions


Boston. -- Some years ago, I enrolled in the Founding Fathers School of Citizen Politics. Believing that it's a good idea to rotate people in and out of public life, I signed up for term limits.

Well, maybe it's a perverse streak. But just as the whole country has come to favor this plan, I'm having second thoughts.

I've begun to suspect that the term-limits law is just another entry on a growing list of mandatory items -- the balanced-budget amendment, the three-strikes-and-you're-out laws -- that are taking over public life.

With these laws, people believe that they are taking power by taking away the power of representatives, judges and even other voters to use their own discretion. It's as if we trust no one, not even ourselves, to do the sensible thing.

The congressional debate is being led in equal measure by long-term incumbents and brand-new freshmen. The incumbents apparently need a rule to make them leave. The freshmen seem to believe -- despite the evidence of their own election -- that voters can't do-it-themselves.

Meanwhile the citizens who approve of term limits include that majority of Americans who don't even vote. Their only act of citizenship is registering an opinion in a poll -- not going to a polling booth.

So the main argument these days is between those who are saying 12 years and you're out and those who are saying six years and you're out. But the argument in my own head has switched from politics to life. It's not just an argument about when people should be forced to leave, but about when they should choose to leave their post, job or role.

I've often wished that drug companies would develop a home-testing kit for burnout. Perhaps we need a CAT scan to discover the lesion that develops when the most important part of a job has become keeping the job. Surely there ought to be a blood test to know when we have lost the enthusiasm, the willingness to take risks, that may have launched a career in the first place.

There are many people outside the Capitol sitting in jobs they've outgrown, seats they've outworn, fighting to keep work they no longer want -- out of fear. Many of us are like actors between roles, absolutely sure we'll never work again. Along with job insecurity, there's a bottomless supply of personal insecurity.

I have a colleague who once took a job as an editor and wrote a list of five things she would never do. When she had done three of them she left. That's a wise list for anyone to write down at the moment of hiring or inauguration.

About three years ago, when a buyout was offered at my own workplace, some took the money and ran. But everyone who was eligible had to rethink his or her own life.

Watching people leave was a bit like watching friends get divorced. It was a challenge to our own commitments. The rest of us had to consider why we were staying. Out of fear? Stick-in-the-mudness? Or was staying right for us? Was there more we wanted to do?

These are questions that occasionally stump a politician during an interview or a debate. Why do you want to be re-elected? But these are questions that should be asked in everyone's own job review. Even those who are surrounded by people who regard them as lucky may come up with surprising answers.

Carolyn Heilbrun wrote a mystery novel under her pen name Amanda Cross called "Death in a Tenured Position." Years later the title had an entirely different meaning to her. She said that it reminded her of "the danger of choosing to stay right where we are, to undertake each day's routine and to listen to our arteries hardening."

"Instead," she wrote, "we should make use of our security, our seniority, to take risks, to make noise, to be courageous, to become unpopular."

It's absolutely true that members of Congress in so-called safe seats can lose touch, grit and energy. It's also true that some get wiser as they get older and more secure.

Public servants don't get tenure; we already require the job review called an election. But term limits? I don't know too many workers -- public or private -- whose loyalty and performance would be enhanced by the promise that whatever they do they'll be fired.

So as the prospects for mandatory term limits grow, my enthusiasm for this blunt instrument withers. I would prefer a more discreet tool. What would happen if every office holder who was burned out got out? That would be the turnover of the century.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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