“That government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” –Gettysburg Address, 1863
For years, people have been proposing ways to reform Congress and state legislatures. One popular solution is term limits. In 1994 and 1996, Nevada voters approved an initiative to amend the Nevada State Constitution to impose term limits for state legislators.
This amendment took effect for legislators elected in 1998 and after. Members of the Nevada Assembly and Senate can serve no more than 12 years in each legislative body.
The idea of term limits has been floating for years. Some people think that if we just keep electing new legislators and kicking out the old, our problems will be solved. What they forget is that this was tried in our country’s early history and failed.
In 1783, the American Revolution ended. In anticipation of the peace, the new American government wrote the Articles of Confederation as the governing document for our country. The Articles regulated government operations from 1781 to 1789. When the Articles proved a failure, they were scrapped in favor of the Constitution of the United States, which was signed in 1787 and ratified in 1788. On March 4, 1789, the government began operating under the Constitution.
One of the major flaws in the Articles of Confederation was the idea of term limits. Delegates were elected for one year terms, and could serve no more than three years out of every six. This constant turnover meant legislation was a mess, and the government was essentially paralyzed. Because of this, the authors of the Constitution deliberately did not include term limits.
Sadly, this lesson has been forgotten by those wanting to resolve some of the problems in our state and country. They forget that when inexperienced people take office, they need help to know what to do, and all too often, that help is given by lobbyists.
By kicking out experienced legislators, we lose the knowledge they have accumulated. Churchill County has lost several capable and experienced legislators, many of them Republicans, due to term limits. They had time to learn the issues and figure out the solutions, and then got kicked out. Discarding experience in favor of ignorance is not a wise way to govern.
“Experts say term limits have brought in new faces but reduced institutional knowledge as veteran lawmakers are pushed out. They say lobbyists have more power ... ‘Lobbyists have become key sources of knowledge in a part-time Legislature with term limits, possibly contrary to the intent of voters who passed term limits,” UNLV Professor Michael Green said.
David F. Damore, a UNLV political science professor, said the state’s biennial Legislature and 120-day sessions empower lobbyists and boost the importance of staff, who become the main sources of institutional knowledge.” (Reno Gazette-Journal, 7/24/17)
The real way to keep legislators accountable to the voters is to implement true campaign finance reform. If more people can afford to run for office, voters will have more choices and can choose to retain an experienced legislator or replace him/her with a more suitable newcomer.
These days, it takes big money to run for office. How many of us can afford to leave our jobs and campaign for office, spending millions of dollars, to take a job where we’ll stay for a few terms, then go home and pick up where we left off?
Because of this, lobbyists and other special interest groups too often choose their own candidates, spending basically unlimited amounts to elect the person who will implement their special interest agenda. This frequently pushes out well-qualified people who don’t have bottomless pockets.
When the Constitution was written, it’s true the Founding Fathers envisioned a citizen government. It’s also true that the citizens they had in mind were wealthy plantation owners or businessmen, or those with inherited wealth of some kind.
If that’s the kind of representative we want today, I’m sure there are a lot of wealthy, powerful men who would be glad to run. But is that what people mean when they say we need to “take our government back?” Do we want to take it back just to hand it to the wealthy who already control too much of our lives?
As far as I can see, the only way we will return our government to a semblance of true representation of, by, and for regular people is to have comprehensive, enforceable campaign finance reform. It can be done. We just have to want it.
Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at email@example.com.