- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2001

Care to guess whos breathing new life into the term limits movement? Its our local politicians, who have motivated the champions of this cause with their self-serving effort to overturn the citys term limits law.

In a 1994 citywide referendum, 62 percent of District voters majority in every ward supported Initiative 49, which limited the mayor, city council members and Board of Education members to two consecutive four-year terms in office.

That referendum is now the subject of undemocratic rearguard action by most council members. The council´s Committee on Government Operations voted 5-0 recently to repeal term limits. The full council is expected to vote soon.

If the measure passes, expect to see all the same faces on the council after election day 2004. If it fails, two-thirds of the current crop of incumbents will be barred from seeking re-election.

Foes of term limits think a majority of the 1994 electorate simply failed to appreciate how such limits will weaken local government. For example Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp alleges that term limits will dilute the council´s "institutional memory and policy expertise."

Revealingly, the repeal bill proposes only to overturn term limits for council members. The bill explicitly limits the mayor to two consecutive terms in office. Apparently, the District is sophisticated enough to survive the loss of a seasoned mayor but not the loss of veteran council members.

But let´s not pretend that this ill-tempered debate is about public service. The repeal effort is nothing more than a job protection scheme for incumbent politicians.

Is it merely a coincidence that most repeal supporters on the city council will be barred from seeking re-election in 2004 and the rest will be barred in 2006? Judging by the popular sentiment demonstrated at a March 12 public hearing of the city council´s Government Operations Committee and a March 28 protest at City Hall, this fiefdom-protecting fiasco is galvanizing local opinion (including labor, liberal and religious leaders) against council members preoccupied with preserving the political status quo.

The incumbents´ alternative instrument for repealing term limits is to seek the public´s stamp of approval in a second referendum on the issue. Council members Sandy Allen, a Democrat, and David A. Catania, a Republican, favor this approach. Former at-large council member Bill Lightfoot suggests, "If you disagree with what the people have done, submit it to them again." This is the route favored by anti-term limits politicians wary of appearing undemocratic.

It´s also the District equivalent of recounting the votes of Floridians until a recount generates the desired outcome. Former Ward 8 council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark spoke for many non-politicians when she said, "The people have spoken, whether we agree or disagree."

Mayor Anthony Williams could wield his veto pen, but the repeal bill is opposed by so few council members as to make it veto-proof. Still, the mayor could underline his first term by offering a symbolic veto, thereby enhancing his reputation as that most oxymoronic of creatures: a principled politician.

The rarity of this particular species ensures that the case for term limits already buttressed by the encouraging experience of 3,000 term-limited cities, counties and towns nationwide, will continue to garner public acclaim both inside and outside the capital.


Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute (www.cato.org).

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