Fixing the "Last Great Experiment"

Published October 1, 2020

By Tom Campbell

Politics is hyper partisan. Government is dysfunctional. People have lost faith that elected officials work for the common good and there is a growing sense that what George Washington once described as “the last great experiment,” the contract “of the people, by the people and for the people” formed by our Constitution, is under threat.
How to fix it? One good step would be term limits. Nowhere are the problems more egregious than with our federal government, but let’s focus on North Carolina and our legislature, where four changes would result in fast and notable improvements.
From our earliest beginnings North Carolina insisted on having a “citizen legislature,” eschewing professional lawmakers. But in recent years the position has become almost full time. Only the wealthy, retired or those with special interests can take the necessary time to serve. A number list legislative pay as their single source of income and they purchase or lease year-round housing in Raleigh.
We need to decide whether we want salaried full-time lawmakers, or a part time legislature. If the latter, we must impose strict limits on the number of days the legislature meets and lawmakers will be required to attend meetings. Other states have the discipline to accomplish these limitations.
Historically, a person would get elected, serve one, two or three two-year legislative terms and return home. Today, far too many have served 15, 20 or more years, perhaps explaining why lawmakers established a legislative retirement system for themselves. Let’s change the length of a term from two years to four years. It costs the typical legislator $100,000 or more to stage a successful legislative election campaign and much of their financing comes from lobbyists, political action committees and special interests. A four-year term would reduce the pressure to constantly raise money and reduce the influence of these special interests.
Next, we must set term limits for how many years a member can serve. Newly elected legislators are told to take their place on the back benches, keep respectfully quiet, then they can rise in ranks of responsibility and power. It is expected they will serve many terms. We propose a limit of three four-year terms or twelve total years. This would ensure more new faces (and ideas), eliminate this apprenticeship system and promote more cooperation and compromise among members, who know there are limits for how long they have to serve. We could also eliminate costly legislative retirements.
Finally, we need to return to the days prior to 1977, when there were finite terms for leadership. The Lieutenant Governor, as President of the Senate, made appointments and set the agenda. Since that person could only serve four years, there was a regular rotation of powerful appointments. But in 1988, a Lieutenant Governor not from the party in control of the Senate was elected, the Lieutenant Governor was stripped of power, and it was vested in the Senate President Pro Tem, with no limits on how long he or she could serve.
Prior to that time the House allowed a Speaker to serve only one two-year term, so committee chairmanships rotated frequently. After the Senate change the House felt the need for more equal footing with the Senate and allowed the Speaker to serve more than two years. Leadership can now serve as long as they garner enough votes to get re-elected. Too much power is now held by too few for too long.
Former House Speaker Joe Mavretic once observed that a legislative leader uses the first four years or so in power working for the people; they spend the years following working for their friends and themselves. Mavretic led a coup that overthrew a Speaker who had become too powerful. We would propose leadership be allowed to serve no more than eight years.
These changes would reap great benefits. More people could serve, power would be distributed more frequently, our system would become more effective and it might promote a better cooperation among the two chambers and with other branches of government. To fix the “last great experiment” we must begin with term limits.
More on this subject next week.