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Born Free USA Blog

Born Free USA Blog

Politics is too serious to be left to the politicians

Published 07/04/08
By Barbara Schmitz, Senior Program Associate

It’s official. I am in mourning.

Today, I testified against legislation that will harm wildlife, and family dogs and cats. The legislation is vague, poorly worded and will have broad ramifications, some of which we can’t anticipate. My testimony was relevant and succinct. But my points were not truly heard by the committee members — because they were in a hurry.

After attending legislative hearings as an animal advocate for 17 years, it today became crystal clear that an invaluable part of the legislative process has died: deliberation.

Deliberation comes from experience. It hinges on the wisdom to know when to act and when it’s best to wait. Thoughtful, intentional policy-making — especially on complex issues — can mean the difference between finding real solutions versus exacerbating the original problem. And that sort of policy-making is dying in the halls of our state capitols. What is causing this mass extinction? Term limits.

Ten years ago, when term limits became the rage, I was not sold on the idea. Term limits seemed like a black-and-white concept, which automatically engenders my caution. While I was cautious back then, I did not have a strong opinion either way.

That was then. Now that I’ve seen the wreckage they’re causing, I am actually grieving.

Term limits have swept out so many elected officials. They are relentless. And the destruction is incalculable. We have lost so much valuable experience held by those officials: policy experience; knowledge of the intricacies and complexities of our system; the rich experience of seeing what works and what doesn’t when addressing complex issues.

I have watched so many dedicated public officials who wish to continue serving us forced to step aside. Don’t get me wrong — some of the newly-elected officials are eager to make a difference and their vitality is great. My complaint really isn’t about the officials — it’s the system that now fails us.

In our quest to “clean house” of officials perceived as tainted by serving too long in a legislative body, we’ve overlooked the obvious and omnipresent solution. Instead of speaking our minds at the ballot boxes, a power we had all along but failed to use judiciously, we sought an easy solution.

So, we chose instead the grand statement of tossing out all those officials on their ears. Instead of simply voting out the few individuals who were not serving our interests, we’ve thrown them all out. Ironically, we’re hurting ourselves in the process.

When we threw out the long-serving legislators, we also threw out accountability. Regardless of how well or poorly an official performs under term limits, he or she loses the job after a brief, finite period of time. What’s the incentive to perform well?

The most rational course of action now, if you’re an elected official, is not to make good policy. Instead, it’s best to avoid confrontation, thereby avoiding public censure. Public censure is the enemy as it could keep you from attaining a position elsewhere when you’re forced to move on.

Despite public perception to the contrary, elected officials perform a complex task and must navigate a labyrinth of procedural rules and often-competing interests. It takes time to begin to understand all of this. But, due to term limits, time to learn is a luxury that’s no longer supplied. You have to hit the ground running as soon as elected. And experienced colleagues are no longer there to explain the pitfalls and shorten the learning curve. They were termed out.

So, elected officials rely instead on an increasingly large staff to them understand their job. Term limits have significantly driven up the costs to taxpayers of legislative staff salaries and expenses. And, ironically, elected officials also rely more heavily on lobbyists. Yes, term limits are spawning an even closer relationship between lobbyists and elected officials because the officials do not have the substantive expertise on many important issues that they must decide. They and their staffs have to turn somewhere for information, information that they need quickly.

Always there is the time pressure. Elected officials now are constantly in a rush. Hurry to get something done. Anything. Hurry to compromise, even if the compromise causes harm in the long-run.

Term limits have not addressed the cynicism and lack of faith in government that have become the norm in our society. Far from it. Term limits have only magnified the cynicism and fed into the negative cycle of distrust.

Charles de Gaulle noted, “I have come to the conclusion that politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.” For those of us who care about animals, our involvement in the political process now is more crucial than ever. We must engage in the process with as much perseverance, knowledge, and credibility as we can muster. The political system now depends on it.

Blogging off,

Barbara

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