The Incumbency Problem

Steven Miller

We already have term limits,” goes the refrain. “They’re called elections.”

Get ready to hear that particular bit of sloganeering for years to come. The term-limits approved by Nevada voters in 1994 and 1996 are every day getting closer to kicking in. And in other states when that deadline approached, incumbents and supporting special interests launched frantic efforts to get voters to change their minds.

Already this year the slogan in question has appeared in the editorial columns of the Lahontan Valley News and the Since it's also long been a staple of the state's most militantly anti-term-limits newspaper, the Las Vegas Sun, there's little doubt editors there will soon be flogging it hard again, too. Reno Gazette-Journal.

That's because, for a political sound bite, it's probably the most effective one that term limits opponents have in their arsenal.

Unfortunately for opponents, that's not saying much. As an argument, it ignores the fundamental issue at the heart of the term limits movement: Our political system is increasingly rigged against genuinely representative government.

It is this rigging of the system that term limits address. The problem is not any particular incumbent, as such. The problem is a system that fosters political incumbency and political careerism as ends in themselves, and thus leads entirely naturally to power-seeking as an end in itself.

What we have now necessarily generates system-wide structural inequities in our form of governance. It turns 'representative' self-government into the oligarchic reign of special interests.

The ballot proposition approved by California voters in 1990 expressed the over-all problem well:

The people find and declare that the Founding Fathers established a system of representative government based upon free, fair and competitive elections. The increased concentration of political power in the hands of incumbent representatives has made our electoral system less free, less competitive, and less representative.

The ability of legislators to serve unlimited number of terms, to establish their own retirement system, and to pay for staff and support services at state expense contribute heavily to the extremely high number of incumbents who are reelected. These unfair incumbent advantages discourage qualified candidates from seeking public office and create a class of career politicians, instead of the citizen representatives envisioned by the Founding Fathers. These career politicians become representatives of the bureaucracy, rather than of the people whom they are elected to represent.

To restore a free and democratic system of fair elections, and to encourage qualified candidates to seek public office, the people find and declare that the powers of incumbency must be limited… and limitations placed upon the number of terms which may be served.

Behind such assertions, that unlimited incumbency damages representative government, is solid empirical evidence. Studies show that the longer a lawmaker holds office, the more his voting behavior diverges from the desires of his constituents. First-term senators, for example, are more than twice as responsive to voter preferences as are senators in their later terms. But the research of public-choice economists shows that it goes significantly beyond that.

It is also true that the longer a lawmaker holds office, the more his power grows. This is natural enough: Senior legislators have better contacts, an established pattern of dealing with other lawmakers, more familiarity with legislative procedure and more familiarity with other legislators’ preferences—the better for deal-making and log-rolling. Interestingly, however, it is the length of tenure, not formal position, that turns out to be the main source of legislative clout.

Put these two consequences together and the real difficulty with unlimited incumbency becomes clear: it is a system that produces lawmakers who grow ever more powerful at the same time that they become ever more indifferent to, even scornful of, the very people who place them in office.

Given the broad rupture of constitutional limitations on government over the last two centuries, this is a genuinely dangerous situation. It reveals why voters cannot simply “throw the bum out” with impunity when their own local powerful incumbent becomes a concubine of special interests organized to prey upon the taxpaying citizenry. District voters know that to give up their powerful incumbent, while other districts retain theirs, would be to lose their chief protection against the predatory interests roaming legislative halls. In effect, incumbents get to operate a mutually beneficial alliance against their own constituents, extorting support notwithstanding the voters’ frustration.

Unlimited incumbency is a systemic problem, and, as such, it requires a system-wide solution.

Term limits are that solution.

Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

Steven Miller

Senior Vice President, Nevada Journal Managing Editor

Steven Miller is Nevada Journal Managing Editor, Emeritus, and has been with the Institute since 1997.

Steven graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Philosophy from Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna). Before joining NPRI, Steven worked as a news reporter in California and Nevada, and a political cartoonist in Nevada, Hawaii and North Carolina. For 10 years he ran a successful commercial illustration studio in New York City, then for five years worked at First Boston Credit Suisse in New York as a technical analyst. After returning to Nevada in 1991, Steven worked as an investigative reporter before joining NPRI.