Limits of Term Limits: Lots of Young Retirees

The excitement of Primary Night no doubt caused millions of New Yorkers to lose seconds, perhaps even minutes, of precious sleep as they followed the cliffhanger that ended with Anthony Weiner seizing the rare chance to exhibit both discretion and valor.

In choosing not to contest a runoff election with front-runner Fernando Ferrer, Mr. Weiner looked like a gentleman to the many and a savior to the few (i.e., the Democratic Party operatives who had reason to fear the divisive effects of a runoff). Democrats will rightly remember Mr. Weiner fondly for his actions, marking him as a young man with a future in New York politics.

Even as this heart-pounding, thrill-a-minute drama played itself out in the days after the primary, another young man watched his future disappear—for now, anyway. Gifford Miller, the first City Council leader in recent history with nary a crease on his face nor a sliver of silver in his hair, chose to contest the Mayoral election this year, not necessarily because he felt himself ready for the job, but because he didn’t have much of a choice. Thanks to term limits, Mr. Miller’s short time as City Council Speaker will conclude at the end of the year.

Before the city’s voters decided that Ronald Lauder was right about the deleterious effects of long-term incumbency, City Council leaders tended to be veteran lawmakers whose years in office had taught them how government works and how it doesn’t. With the passage of term limits in 1993, propelled by Mr. Lauder’s millions in advocacy and television ads, the long-termers were dismissed from office and the Council itself embarked on an era in which inexperience is considered a virtue, and contempt for precedent a sign of wisdom.

And so Mr. Miller, at the age of 35, will be “retiring” as Council Speaker in a few months, having held the position only since 2002. In another era, he, like Mr. Weiner, would have been marked as a young politician with a future. But the future seems to beckon only to Mr. Weiner, because his position is subject to those old-fashioned term limits known as “elections,” and he will continue to serve in Congress for as long as the voters in his district wish. Mr. Miller, however, will soon be without public position, finished (perhaps) when he ought to have been just getting started.

As luck would have it, the current Council Speaker is preparing for the end of his reign even as his long-serving predecessor, Peter Vallone, has published a book about his years as a lawmaker. It bears a title that some might regard as provocative: Learning to Govern. The phrase suggests that governance is indeed something that requires an education in the arts and wiles of politics and human behavior. Those who tout term limits as the solution to what ails us apparently believe that governance requires no special training or insight.

Mr. Vallone served as the City Council’s leader, first as majority leader and then as Council Speaker, from 1986 until his forced retirement four years ago. Like Mr. Miller, Mr. Vallone’s final months as Speaker were spent in a vain attempt to win the Democratic primary for Mayor. When he lost, he, like Mr. Miller, was finished. But Mr. Vallone’s career ended when he was in his mid-60’s, after decades in politics.

Mr. Vallone’s predecessor as majority leader of the Council was Thomas Cuite of Brooklyn, who simply retired in 1985. He, too, was a long-serving Council member who spent years learning to govern.

It is fashionable to dismiss the likes of Mr. Vallone and other tenured members of the political class as dull-witted time-servers for whom experience means not the accumulation of special knowledge, but of time served in the city’s pension system. There is some merit in that statement, but as a sweeping generalization, it is no more valid than any other argument in that genre.

Mr. Vallone’s book serves as a reminder that there is something to be said for the notion that political leaders ought to have some experience in their chosen profession, and that voters would be foolish to equate time served with ineptitude or corruption.

The term-limit campaign, which gives Council members just two four-year terms, was born of frustration not so much with long-term incumbency, but with incumbents who become unaccountable thanks to other sorts of corruption: Political districts drawn to assist incumbents, taxpayer-supported projects funneled to incumbents in need of a happy photo-op, and election laws which make the act of challenging an incumbent prohibitive.

If New York had competitive elections, voters might well have been able to impose term limits on their own terms—that is, by voting incumbents out of office.

Instead, the city has installed a system requiring young politicians to be dispatched to retirement when, in any other profession, they would just be entering their most knowledgeable and productive years.

Who, then, is learning to govern?

Limits of Term Limits: Lots of Young Retirees