Is Competition at Ballot Box Worth Loss of Choice and Experience in Office? : Politics: Limiting the terms of officeholders and public financing offer challengers a better chance at dislodging entrenched incumbents.

<i> Xandra Kayden was executive director of the Commission to Draft a Code of Ethics for the Los Angeles City Government and is the author of "Surviving Power" (Free Press)</i>

It is safe to predict that not many voters will bother to cast ballots June 5. The consequences are worrisome, because it means winners stay in office too long, blocking the rise of new leadership and, perhaps, society’s forward movement. In Congress, for example, 99% of House incumbents were reelected in 1988; in the Senate, 85% held onto their seats. At the state and local levels, the reign of incumbents is similar.

One explanation is that the lower you go on the political ladder--the less visible the office--the less voters know about challengers. At best, choice is little more than recognizing a familiar name.

There are two solutions to non-competitive elections now widely discussed in public-policy circles: public financing of campaigns and limiting the terms of officeholders. It is not always clear, however, that these are solutions to the same problem.

Public-financing advocates contend that unless challengers gain access to more funds, they have virtually no chance at the polls. With the additional money, the candidates can improve their name recognition among voters, thereby enhancing their competitiveness.


For that reason, incumbents tend to be wary of public financing, especially when it comes to their own campaigns. They are less reluctant to tap taxpayer funds for campaigns in which others politicians are running. Congress, for example, made public financing the law in presidential campaigns. As for itself, it still prefers private campaign money.

When some form of public financing is instituted, incumbents want to keep spending limits low to prevent their opponents from spending enough to gain name recognition.

The other solution to incumbency stalemate is limiting the terms of officeholders. There is a federal proposal for senators and representatives. Come November, Californians can choose to limit the terms of Assembly members and senators. And Angelenos can sign a petition to be able to restrict the tenure of council members and certain elected officials. (The Los Angeles version is especially anti-incumbent, because it would retroactively impose a two-term limit.) Most of the proposals would impose a 12-year limit.

The President, of course, is restricted to two terms. Governors in 29 states also can’t spend the rest of their lives running their states. But thus far, few cities and no state have set term limits for legislators.

It is quite possible that if the term-limit clock began ticking for the “permanent Congress,” as it is known in Washington these days, the consequences would ripple throughout the electoral system. The idea that public-service careers should start in the school committee or city council, advance to the state legislature, to Congress and then on to the presidency loses it appeal when you consider the average tenure of the respective officeholders. Typically, a Los Angeles council member has been in office 13 years, a supervisor 18. In Sacramento, an Assembly member, on average, has been in office for 15 years, a state senator for 12. The average tenure of the California delegation to the House of Representatives is 11 years. At that rate, it would take 69 years just to run for the U.S. Senate.

Reapportionment, old age, changing ambitions, the need to make more money and new opportunities, however, help to maintain the turnover in most of these governmental bodies. Sixty percent of the California delegation to Washington has been elected since 1980; likewise, 54% of the state senators and 65% of the Assembly members.

The average tenure of local officeholders is greater. Two of the five supervisors were elected in 1980; the remaining three were already supervisors. Six City Council members were elected in the 1980s; five have been on the council for 20 years or more.

Talent, hard work and experience are needed to become a good politician. It usually takes years to develop the skills to rise to positions of leadership in legislatures. For example, the name of Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) is invariably preceded by “well-respected,” in large part because his judgment on military matters is the result of long study and service on the Armed Services Committee. He was first elected to the Senate in 1972. Advocates of term limits would eliminate the Nunns.

On the other hand, if terms were restricted, the time it takes to advance might shrink proportionately. Seniority could be achieved in six or eight years, not 10 or 20. Since political issues tend to recycle themselves several times during a 10-year period, maybe the country would be better served by new leaders the second or third time around.

A more serious drawback to term limits is that they are anti-democratic because they eliminate choice. We rely on voters to hold elected officeholders accountable. If a politician’s constituents wish to reelect him or her year after year, they should be able to do so.

The problem, in the end, is that we really don’t have a choice because we don’t know enough about the candidates. Sometimes, we pick candidates because we know something about them, are able to discern their positions by virtue of their party affiliation or because the issues have been widely discussed during the campaign. Most of the time, however, the choice is between a vaguely familiar name and one that is totally unknown.

Public financing, where available, has proved to be effective in increasing political competitiveness. Limiting the terms of officeholders on the top rungs of the political ladder assures open seats, but when were these offices ever non-competitive? The two-term limit for President and one- or two-term limit for governors more likely reduces bossism and corruption than promote competitiveness. What medicine you take depends on what disease you want to cure.