Term limits don’t work.
The alternative, defeat by the voters, doesn’t work that well either.
In either case, elected officials hold their offices for long terms. They have better name recognition than their challengers, can usually raise more money and know how to use incumbency to their benefit.
Familiarity with office holders can give voters confidence they know what their votes will produce. Challengers must embody some risk, because how they will reform remains to be seen.
In Maine, term limits apply to state offices – governor, legislators and constitutional officials like the attorney general or secretary of state. The general rule is eight years and out.
But the reverse also seems to be true – an eight-year ticket to office – if the incumbent wants to keep the seat.
Since the advent of the four-year term of governor, no incumbent who sought reelection has been denied a second term. One governor (James Longley) did not seek reelection and another (Clinton Clawson) died in office.
The original purpose of legislative term limits was to end the almost endless tenure of some members. The prime target for some legislators was John Martin, the Aroostook Democrat who is the longest-serving legislator in state history.
The problem with Maine term limits is that they only ban consecutive terms in a single office. Take Martin. He has served three separate periods in the House plus breaking the string with eight years in the Senate. Other legislators skip a term and start a new eight-year run.
The same system appears to attract former Gov. Paul LePage. He served two four-year terms and left office. He now talks about running again in 2024.
The state term-limit system is weak, but there is no federal system. States themselves cannot impose term limits on federal offices. That would require federal action, possibly a constitutional amendment.
In 1994 Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley of Washington successfully defeated in court his state’s attempt to term limit federal officials. Republican George Nethercutt, who supported term limits, promised to serve only three terms and upset Foley.
Holding office had proved seductive for Nethercutt. He served five terms. But when he left the House to run for the Senate, his broken promise helped defeat him.
Since Margaret Chase Smith was a Maine senator, the state has sent eight people to the U.S. Senate. Smith was defeated by Democrat Bill Hathaway when she tried for her fifth term and Hathaway then lost after a single term. Four Senators retired. Two, Republican Susan Collins and independent Angus King, now serve.
In 1996, when Collins first ran for the Senate, she said that she wanted to serve two terms. She is now running for her fifth term as did Smith, her role model who failed in the attempt.
Traditionally, Republicans have favored term limits and Democrats have opposed them. Once in power, Democrats have held onto legislative control at the federal level and in many states longer than the GOP. That could explain the partisan split on term limits, though the difference in tenure seems to be fading.
Democrats maintain that the voters should decide on terms. Republicans counter that, in practice, incumbents win. In the end, as Smith discovered, there may be another rule. As voters become familiar with their public officials, they may become more critical.
Obviously, Collins does not share her party’s traditional attitude. By staying on office, she gains seniority and more influential committee appointments. Also, she uses her reputation as a moderate to gain leverage. She has been reported as saying, “I have a lot of power — I like that.”
One reason for term limits is to keep public officials closer to the public. Politicians are less likely to keep apart from their constituents when they know they must have a career outside of public office. This realization may keep them better attuned to popular sentiment.
One criticism of Collins is that she does not have much unstructured contact with Maine people. That may be a result of a long public life and relatively little of the life most of her constituents lead.
On the other side of the issue, long-term incumbents argue they can use their seniority to bring federal money home. And they gain independent expertise to develop their positions without overly relying on professional staff. Still, continually running for reelection means spending time on fundraising, not governing.
The question of term limits should be seen in a broad political context. If public sentiment determines it’s time for a change, that view can sweep all other considerations aside, including term limits or the lack of them.