The phony allure of term limits

Democratic Rep. John Martin of Eagle Lake. BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett.

Democratic Rep. John Martin of Eagle Lake. BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett.

Give credit to John Martin. The guy certainly has a delicious sense of irony. Martin wants to kill Maine’s term limit law.

In 1993, largely in response to the increasingly tiresome and corrupt influence of Martin and his political machine — a Martin aide had just become the centerpiece to a conspiracy to steal two legislative elections — the people of Maine passed a term limits law.

Proponents made rather familiar arguments. Career politicians are bad. No one should remain in government for decades. Institutional public servants block up-and-coming, fresh faces with new ideas and new energy.

These rather populist ideas made sense to many Mainers, particularly since it was during a particularly cynical period, when trust and faith in government were at an all time low and would soon lead to the national conservative political wave of 1994.

The law limits members of the Maine Legislature to serving no more than four consecutive terms in office. You will notice I said consecutive, because the term limit prohibitions are not lifetime limitations.

Indeed, Maine’s term limit law is easy to make a mockery of, something that lawmakers like Martin himself have continually done. Frequently you will see a legislator who simply does not know when to hang up the cleats bounce between the state House and state Senate, or simply wait out a term and then return.

If you have a perverse sense of humor, it can actually be amusing to watch all the machinations some of these people will go through to not only avoid the intent of the law, but actually gain more power for themselves. In more than one area of the state, there is a group of two or three public servants who have come to a sort of informal agreement among themselves regarding who runs for what office when.

Martin, a Democrat from Eagle Lake, originally served in the Maine Legislature from 1964-1996, serving as a powerful but controversial speaker of the Maine House of Representatives from 1975 to 1994.

In 1996, Martin lost a write-in campaign to Republican Duane Belanger, whom he then defeated in 1998 to yet again return to the Legislature. After that election, he chose to move up to serve in the Maine Senate, where he sat from 2000-2008.

Troy Jackson tried to get elected in Martin’s House district when he moved up, running first as a Republican, losing to Democrat Marc Michaud. He took on Michaud again in 2002 as an independent and won, later converting into a Democrat. He served in the Maine House of Representatives from 2002–2008.

In 2008, Martin was termed out of the Senate. A wink and a nod later, and John Martin ran for Troy Jackson’s seat, and Jackson ran for Martin’s seat. Sen. Martin became Rep. Martin (again) and Rep. Jackson became Sen. Jackson.

These two are not the only ones with such convenient arrangements. This ridiculous game of revolving chairs occurs across party lines, geographic districts, and partisan ideologies.

But the idea of term limits is not just a bad one because of a clumsy, ineffective mechanism to accomplish “limits.” It is also bad for a number of other reasons.

The first, and most obvious, is that term limits throw out great people along with bad people. For every corrupt kleptocrat bent on personal power and nefarious designs on public policy that a limit theoretically gets rid of, you are also throwing out heroic, altruistic, constituent-minded public servants.

You might say, of course, that there are a lot more of the bad than the good. That may be true, but consider my second point: getting rid of one bad person rarely replaces them with a good person.

Quite the contrary, term limits allow the promotion of new bad people, without either a tradition or mindfulness of service. On the national level, Sen. Ted Kennedy, prior to his death, was frequently held up as an example of why we needed term limits. An obnoxious windbag enriching himself on money, fame and power. What could be worse?

Elizabeth Warren. That’s what.

Then, of course, you have the logistical problems of term limits. First, they give more power to the governor, bureaucrats and lobbyists, who have the money, time and perspective to drive policy, as they have professionalized public service. Additionally, experienced figures, like John Martin, can make use of their deep knowledge of history and rules (and the lack of any other such experience on the other side) to essentially run a shadow speakership.

Term limits are a classic example of something that sounds like a great idea that everyone wants to support that is in fact an unmitigated disaster. So, ironic as it may be that Martin is carrying this torch, I’m with him on this one.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.