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The return of term limits

A call for legislative term limits has once again entered the political fray in Maryland. Among the more vocal proponents are state Sen. Andrew Harris, a Republican candidate for the First District congressional seat, and any number of General Assembly candidates.

Although talk of term limits seemed to peak in the 1990s, its revival is hardly surprising considering the difficult economic times and the rise of populist candidates seeking to tap into voter frustration. Term limits have a certain appeal — if one's chief desire is to throw the rascals out.

The problem is that term limits tend not to accomplish what its supporters are seeking. In the dozen or more states that have adopted legislative term limits, the consequences are familiar. Elected leaders may be forced to leave office at some point, but they still remain 800-pound gorillas in the political arena and usually just move to the next elected post — state house to state senate to Congress or something similar, crowding out opportunities for newcomers.

But worse, term limits suck expertise and experience out of a state legislature, transferring more power to governors, legislative staff, lobbyists and political parties. That's a formula for machine politics, not good government.

As Thad Kousser, a University of California- San Diego political scientist, found in a survey of California and other states with term limits, they result in less-productive legislatures but not much change in policy. If anything, the political instability brings less policy innovation and greater adherence to the status quo.

There is also a certain self-serving quality to politicians flogging this issue but declining to voluntarily step aside.

A proposed constitutional amendment to limit senators to two six-year terms and House members to three two-year terms, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, has won mostly Republican backers. The GOP's Contract with America in 1994 included voluntary terms limits that were ultimately ignored by many of its signers.

And then there are supporters of term limits like Jordan Hadfield of Dundalk, who is running in the Democratic primary for state Senate in eastern Baltimore County. Small wonder he'd like to see limits, as his opponent is incumbent Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., who was first elected to the legislature when John F. Kennedy was president.

Are many incumbent politicians too beholden to special interests? Absolutely — but that is an argument for public financing of elections, as challengers can be just as tied to deep-pocketed interest groups as incumbents. Better to offer qualified office-seekers of all kinds the opportunity to use public money to finance their campaigns than go begging to Wall Street fat cats or big energy companies that seek to buy influence.

If people are frustrated with the lock incumbent politicians have on the legislature at the state or federal level, the best available option is to vote them out. To do so doesn't require any contract, statute or constitutional amendment. And if recent polls are correct, Congress is destined for significant turnover this November, a reminder that in this country political office is not guaranteed for life.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial said state Sen. Andy Harris supported term limits but had not pledged to limit his own time in office. Mr. Harris recently pledged to limit himself to no more than 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives if elected.

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