Monday, November 21, 2016

Term limits: an idea whose time will never come

The president-elect has set himself an ambitious schedule.

In the first 100 days he's in office, Donald Trump wants to eliminate health insurance for about 16.4 million people now covered by the Affordable Care Act. He wants to build his fabled wall along the border with Mexico, and pull children apart from their parents as he deports an estimated 11 million people. And as part of his efforts to “drain the swamp” of Washington's corruption, he wants a constitutional amendment setting term limits for Senators and members of the House of Representatives.

Unlike his other proposals, this one at least has no chance of seeing action. And although term limits are nowhere near as horrifying as Trump's other domestic proposals, they still would an overwhelmingly negative effect on American democracy, ironically by increasing the very corruption they're meant to address.

Let me explain.

I first ran for the school board 10 years ago, when my daughter was in second grade. I ran for re-election twice, and finally agreed last year to fill the remainder of someone else's unfinished term.

By the time I left the school board this past June 30, I had served a total 10 years, making me the second-longest serving trustee in the school's history. Three months later, my successors still find occasion to tap my advice, knowledge and perspective. I'm not special; it's just that these things don't magically appear after an election. They come with experience, and I have a decade of that under my belt.

For example: About a month ago, there was some uncertainty over how to handle the exact responsibilities of a particular board committee. I had been on the committee for the past four years, so I wrote up a set of guidelines that outlined past practices and my experiences.

The school is about to meet with members of the state's Office of Charter Schools as officials there review our success and decide whether to renew our charter for another five years. The current board chairwoman, mindful both of the gravity of this review and of her relative newness to the board, asked me how I would answer some of the questions she's likely to field.

And of course, the contract with our teachers union is expiring at the end of this year. It seems like I'm the only one who feels unhappy with the job I did leading negotiations last time, and more than a few people have said that it'd be nice to have me back for a fourth go-around.

None of this is particularly complicated. Anyone on the board who sticks around for a term or more is going to remember things like specific contractors who didn't deliver what they promised, or personnel decisions that turned out to be brilliant. It just takes time to learn the lingo, the difference between governing a school and running it, and knowing when to discuss things and when not to.

Sometimes trustees even spot bad decisions before they're made. Like everything else, that's a skill that comes with experience.

Set term limits, and you'll lose the benefit of that accumulated experience. What's worse, those term limits wouldn't eliminate those cozy relationships between lobbyists and elected officials. They would make them even cozier.

At any school board, most policies they set are required by the state or federal Department of Education; and the rest are pretty narrow in scope as well. They're the sort of thing you can determine with a little research, some common sense, and some robust discussion.

To wit: Should allow parents to drive into the parking lot at dismissal, or do they have to park their cars on the street and come get their children? With reports of two fender-benders and other careless driving in the parking lot, that was a no-brainer. Make them park the car on the street and come get the kids.

Do we transition our Spanish-speaking students into English-only classrooms, or do we immerse all our incoming students into an environment where they learn both Spanish and English? Should that program run until third grade, or fifth? Federal law requires we provide instruction in Spanish while students develop English proficiency, and research overwhelmingly shows the benefits of bilingualism. This decision took more discussion, but we still reached consensus.

It's not like the school board sets land-use policy for national parks or deciding technical issues like Net Neutrality. We never had to consider all the environmental, business, trade and humanitarian factors in setting regulations for air and water quality.

And not once were we asked to weight a dozen different economic theories as we defined a role for government regulators that could mean the difference between the occasional recession in a steadily growing economy, or the spastic boom-and-bust economy that led to the Great Depression and, more recently, the Great Recession.

The U.S. Congress does vote on legislation that affects issues like these, and we need legislators who know what they're talking about to make those decisions.

Our elected officials develop an understanding of complex issues like foreign policy, international trade, tourism and even things like property taxes in one of three principal ways. The first is to gain experience firsthand, complete with training seminars. A second is to listen to more experienced colleagues, as my former colleagues on the board are doing and as I myself did.

Term limits would eliminate both of those options by forcing experienced colleagues out, and by preventing newer public officials from ever gaining that experience themselves.

The third way to gain understanding is to meet with smooth-talking, well-connected lobbyists who come to the table armed with facts and figures that support their clients' agenda. These lobbyists are always eager to stop and have a bite and explain things to their good old friend who happens to be an elected official. It is literally in their job description.

I'll put it simply: Term limits are a bad idea. Anyone telling you otherwise either is lying to you, or hasn't thought this through adequately.

Want to end the cozy relationship between lobbyists and your elected officials? Remind the elected officials that they serve you. Call their offices about the issues that matter to you and make them actually listen, rather than letting them issue form responses to your emails. Meet them when they're in town, bring along some friends, and make them notice you.

What if they still don't listen? We already have term limits. They're called Election Day.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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