Monday, March 2, 2009

"With one hand he returns the fasces, symbol of power as appointed dictator of Rome. His other hand holds the plow, as he resumes the life of a citizen and farmer." — A statue of Cincinnatus in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Weekly Opinion/Editorial
by Steve Fair

Four hundred and fifty years before Christ, Cincinnatus was appointed Dictator of the Roman Empire in order to rescue an army that was surrounded by the enemy. At the time of his appointment Cincinnatus was working his small farm. When the Senators approached him to tell him of his “election as dictator,” Cincinnatus was plowing, not campaigning. He reluctantly accepted the job and under his leadership, Rome defeated the enemy in a single day. Cincinnatus maintained his authority only long enough to bring Rome stability. He then resigned and went back to farming. George Washington is often compared to Cincinnatus because he gave up near-absolute power once the crisis of the American Revolution had passed and victory had been won.

In the Roman system, rotation in office was used to ensure equitable service among all qualified candidates. Rotation was guaranteed because no Roman was allowed to hold the same office more than once. Rotation in office was also practiced in ancient Athens where people were selected to participate in the 500-member governing council. In order to participate, the people of Athens agreed never to serve on the council for more than two years in their lifetime.

Our founding fathers did not believe in career politicians. In the Federalist Papers, #39, James Madison wrote that elected officials should hold office for a “limited period.” Career politicians are a modern invention. It wasn’t until the 20th century that elected officials came to the conclusion they were “indispensable” and no one was more qualified to lead than they. In the twenty first century, slick well organized ad campaigns proclaim how the incumbent’s leadership skills rival those of Moses and Joshua in leading Israel out of bondage. Little of the chatter during a campaign addresses issues, but a great deal is made of an incumbent’s “seniority” and tenure. It’s sad to say, but seniority does play a role in the process because so many politicans have “parked” in office.

In the nineteen century, rotation in office was a popular concept that enjoyed support at all levels of government. In The Washington Community, 1800-1828, James Young says, “the tendency to look with mistrust upon political power was so ingrained into American culture that even the officeholders themselves perceived their occupations in a disparaging light.” With Congressional popularity at an all time low, it would seem things haven’t changed much in two hundred years.

When Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly approved legislative term limits in 1990 critics of “rotation in office” said bureaucrats and lobbyists would run rough shod over the “novice” legislators who would not be able to grasp the great complexities of government in twelve short years. That has not proven to be the case and in fact, Oklahoma government is more efficient, ethical, transparent, and productive than in our state’s one hundred history. The office of Governor is the only other office currently term limited in Oklahoma, but that may change.

State Representative Jason Murphy, R, Guthrie, has introduced JR 1022 that would limit the number of terms for the other statewide office holders including lieutenant governor, state auditor and inspector, attorney general, treasurer, commissioner of labor, superintendent of public instruction and insurance commissioner, all of whom serve 4-year terms. Murphy’s proposal would limit these offices to two terms or eight years. His proposal would also limit those who serve on the Corporation Commmission to a maximum of twelve years. Corporation Commissioners serve six year terms. The Joint Resolution would change the State Constitution, so it would require a vote of the people.

Critics, aka career politicians and staffers, of rotation in office will proclaim that term limits are unnecessary because voters have the choice to “limit” elected officials in every election by voting for the challenger. That is literally true, but not realistically true.

The reality is incumbents are returned to office ninety seven percent of the time. Incumbency is a huge advantage and lobbyists, bureaucrats know that so obscene amounts of money flow to incumbents from special interests. Incumbents have a huge advantage over challengers in fundraising because lobbyists, PACs, and other special interests are betting on the horse they know.

If more voters based their vote on issues, incumbents would be forced to run on their voting record, but most voters merely responding to an effective marketing campaign and have no clue about issues. The political playing field is not level because of incumbency and that’s why it’s critical we have mandated term limits. Open seats remove the incumbency factor and tend to level the playing field.

There are some principled elected officials who self impose term limits on their service. Men like Dr. Tom Coburn and former 4th district Congressman J.C. Watts are examples of people who leave their chosen professions to serve in government and then return to private life, but they are the exception not the rule.

It’s not certain Governor Henry will sign the Joint Resolution if it reaches his desk, but he should. Oklahoma voters have proven we want term limits for elected officials and that should include all levels of offices.

Please note: Since I wrote this editorial, it has been correctly pointed out that JOINT resolutions do not require the Governor's signature. I knew that, but for some reason forgot it- chalk it up to old age!

Please forgive me for dispensing errorous information. Bottom line this means that if the JR passes the Senate, the FOLKS will be given the opportunity to consider the resolution(vote on it). It doesn't change the overall tone of my editorial- we still need term limits, but thanks to all those who pointed out this error and for making sure the information you read on Fair & Biased is accurate. Steve Fair

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