A bureaucratic leash

One of the first solutions suggested when the subject of government being out of touch with the voters comes up is term limits.

By limiting the number of years in office someone can serve, so goes the logic, it is assured new people who are closer to the issues are always entering elected office and making decisions. Presumably, such well-intentioned sentiments are behind a proposed change to Harford County's charter to limit county council members to two consecutive four-year terms, the same limit imposed on the office of county executive.

Owing to its large size — 435 members — and byzantine procedures, the U.S. House of Representatives is the government body for which term limits are most frequently suggested. Curiously, the House was devised with representatives being required to face the voters every two years specifically to ensure they would be in touch with the people. Not surprisingly, even those who advocate term limits as part of their campaigns when running for the House are less enthusiastic supporters of limits once they are elected, but more on the American experience with the House of Representatives in a bit.

Since the post was established in 1972, a Harford County executive has been limited to being elected to two terms, which is presumably modeled after the restriction imposed in 1951 by the 22nd amendment to the U.S. Constitution on the executive office of president.

When George Washington decided not to seek a third term, he set a tradition that was retained until Franklin Roosevelt managed to get elected to four consecutive terms. In retrospect, it was realized that allowing a single person to stay in the executive office for an unlimited amount of time posed a bureaucratic threat to the institutions of representative democracy. In other words, too much power in the hands of one person for too long can have bad results.

The same threat to the will of the governed, however, has not manifest itself when it comes to Congress, largely because, as the drafters of the Constitution envisioned, two-year terms mean the voters regularly have the opportunity to turn out poor representatives. Over the decades, voters have routinely changed the makeup of the House of Representatives, often punishing — but sometimes rewarding — the party of the incumbent president in non-presidential election years.

Still, there are many examples of members of the House of Representatives, as well as the senate, who have careers spanning decades and this often is cited as a weakness of the system and a strong reason in favor of term limits. It also, however, is a situation that makes for a rather strong argument against term limits for those elected to legislative bodies, be they Congress or the Harford County Council.

The apparatus of government as it exists today is absolutely massive compared to what was envisioned by those who drafted and approved the Constitution. Whereas the original United States was a nation with a population of fewer than four million people, it's a fair presumption that in our nation of more than 300 million, there are at least four million civil service employees working for federal, state and local governments in positions ranging from garbage truck driver to four-star general.

By and large, people in career civil service positions have the ability to wield an awful lot of power. It's the responsibility of elected officials to hold the power of the bureaucracy in check. The adversarial relationship built into a system that pits an executive who runs the government against a legislative body with authority over finances is such that the largest portion of the bureaucracy — that of the executive branch — is best watched over by a legislative branch.

For precisely the same reason, having an executive indefinitely in charge of the bulk of government is a bad idea, having legislators in watchdog positions indefinitely allows for an elected institutional memory that can outlast the institutional memory of the non-elected civil service branch.

This is one of the few ways, beyond limiting civil servants terms in hired office, to ensure the bureaucracy doesn't become powerful beyond its mandate.

While there are arguments that favor term limits for legislators, there are also good reasons to keep watchful legislators in office for the long haul. And if they stop being watchful, they're a lot easier to get rid of than career bureaucrats who stop being service-minded.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad