Term Limits, Democracy and Sustainability

bloomberg 7 Term Limits, Democracy and SustainabilityNew York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent announcement that he would seek a third term as mayor brings back the issue of term limits and its connection to good government and long-term planning. I am against term limits anywhere, including the American presidency. The 22nd amendment was an anti-democratic, anti-government mistake, just as the term limit mandate in New York is a bad idea. The argument against term limits is simple and has two parts:

1) People should be able to vote for anyone they want (this is a concept known as democracy).
2) Term limits extend an elected official’s “lame duck” period from about a year to four. The minute the second term starts, the clock (like the one in Mayor Bloomberg’s bullpen) starts counting down to zero.

By toying with running for higher office, maintaining his status as one of wealthiest people in the world, and continuing to improve his already considerable political and analytic skills, Mayor Bloomberg has managed to avoid the aura of powerlessness that accompanies lame-duck status. In contrast, the lame duck Bush presidency is losing authority and credibility by the hour. It’s a small miracle that the Wall Street bailout bill finally got through the House of Representatives. Term limits should be imposed by voters at the ballot box. The idea behind the limits is that the voters can’t be trusted to vote the rascals out of office when they need to be thrown out. Term limits do have a positive side – they force new people into the political process and make sure that elected officials never get too comfortable in their positions. Unfortunately, term limits also help ensure that elected officials never get too experienced or expert in their work.

In the case of Mike Bloomberg, the best argument for a third term is that it gives him more time to complete long-term projects and institutionalize the long-term approach he and his team brought to the city in PLANYC 2030. Another term in office provides him with the opportunity to fully institutionalize some of the important agenda items his administration introduced in that path-breaking sustainability plan. The issues of sustainability are not easily addressed within the time frame of election cycles. Think of the city’s third water tunnel project: This 60-mile long tunnel was first planned in 1954, begun in 1970 and will finally be completed in 2020 at an estimated cost of $6 billion. Eight years in office is a pretty short term when you compare it to that time frame.

The argument that we need Mayor Mike because no one else can get us through the city’s current financial crisis is ridiculous and reminds me of Rudy Giuliani’s rant after September 11, 2001, when he begged for a three-month extension of his term. The argument for re-electing Bloomberg is that he has been an excellent mayor and we value his accomplishments and experience. I certainly do.

Of course, no elected official is indispensible. Michael Bloomberg is a superb manager with an excellent command of financial issues and data. He may very well be the best mayor New York City could elect in 2009. But there are a lot of talented people in this city who could do an excellent job at the helm.

As for an argument against a third term for the mayor: look to the third-term performance of mayors LaGuardia, Wagner and Koch. LaGuardia and Koch were both superb mayors, but both were at their weakest during their third terms. Wagner was mediocre throughout, but never more mediocre than in his final term. The old showbiz principle, “leave ‘em wanting more” probably applies here. Eight years may go by too quickly, but it’s hard not to wear out your welcome when you pass a decade on the job.

While I think Bloomberg risks his legacy by seeking re-election again, that choice belongs to him and the voters of New York City. The argument that he is changing the rules in the middle of the game is irrelevant. The rules are anti-democratic and should be changed. The politicians who argue that the rules should only be changed for future elections, or only via referendum, are simply self-serving. Even though I would lift the limits entirely, an increase from two terms to three is a good start. Let’s change the term limits law and give New Yorkers a chance to either re-elect or defeat Mayor Bloomberg. Over 60 years ago Winston Churchill told the British House of Commons, “democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried.” I think it’s time to restore democracy to New York City and repeal term limits.