In the fall of 1941, a grouchy Winston Churchill addressed a Parliament full of his detractors, including some who wanted his job. He recalled an ancient Chinese custom that held that a public official who wanted to criticize the government should be willing afterward to commit suicide, so that everyone would know that the critic had no ulterior motive or self-interest in mind. Underlying Churchill’s rather extreme formulation was a basic principle that any citizen can appreciate: that it’s often difficult to recognize the difference between self-interest and public interest in the words and deeds of our officials. Far too often, voters discover, policies promoted as serving the public good turn out mainly to benefit those who proposed them.
This fundamental problem lies at the heart of the current debate about extending or revising New York City’s term-limits law. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a significant bloc of City Council members are gearing up to modify the law, which voters enacted in a referendum and endorsed in a second vote three years later. Supporters of the mayor contend that eight years is too brief a time for city officials to serve effectively. And they go one step further, adding that, because of the Wall Street meltdown, we need to change the law to allow those who’ve been in office for the past eight years, and thus have crucial experience to draw on in the crisis, to continue governing Gotham. And so the public interest (term limits is a bad law) disappears into the mist of self-interest (I’m going to change it in a way that benefits me).
Under these circumstances, it’s much easier to admire the small group within the City Council that opposes the mayor, though they themselves will have to leave office if the current law remains unchanged. Councilman John Liu perhaps said it best, observing that when he entered public service seven years ago after working in the private sector, he was cynical about government, and that the current term limits debate has again “decimated my belief in the system.” Supporters of the mayor, including those who think the city can’t do without him in tough times, ought to ask themselves a question: Why should anyone be surprised that voters have become so suspicious and skeptical of public officials, if even those in government are struck by the transparent cynicism of the term-limits debate?
Critics of the current term-limits law argue that it isn’t really working anyway, because those it drives out of office just move on and run for other public offices. One of the leaders of the movement to block changes in the law, Councilman Bill de Blasio, for instance, has already announced that he’s running next year for Brooklyn borough president – a job that will be vacant because the current Beep is also term-limited. But there’s nothing wrong with this. If critics of term limits are correct that the experience these pols have gained in city government is so valuable, then they should remember that many levels of government—from local to municipal to state government—will face tests in the coming years. Rather than allowing city officials to enjoy the advantages of incumbency continually when they run for office, the term-limits law forces them to make their case to new constituencies, which may be broader or defined by different boundaries.
It’s a lesson that Mayor Bloomberg should take to heart. As E. J. McMahon of the Manhattan Institute’s Empire Center has observed, New York State faces an even bigger fiscal emergency than the city does because of what has happened in the credit markets. There’s nothing in the current term-limits law that would prevent the mayor from moving on to run for governor and reform Albany. Of course, doing so would require that he appeal to a larger, more diverse constituency than he currently serves, and thus constitute a bigger political risk. But it’s hard to argue, if the mayor believes his presence is so valuable to New York City, that he wouldn’t be even more valuable in the capital, given the magnitude of the problems and the extent to which policies in Albany influence the city.
Besides, first terms are almost always more successful than third terms.