Ben Bova: Palin, Specter make case for term limits

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Sarah Palin’s sudden decision to resign her governorship of Alaska just plain ticks me off.

And she’s not the only politician who’s irked me.

The people of Alaska elected her governor for a four-year term, but she suddenly decided to resign that job, apparently so she can put her full energies into running for president in 2012.

If that’s the case, it’s as if you hired someone to build you a house, and halfway through the construction job he runs off to build a bigger house for somebody else, leaving you with a half-built shell.

I’m not commenting on ex-Gov. Palin’s politics. Conservative, liberal, whatever — that’s not the point. The point is honor and a sense of responsibility. Suppose she is elected president, and suddenly the Vatican offers her the job of pope! Would she quit Washington and rush off to Rome? I know it’s a ridiculous simile, but the principle is the same.

When you take that oath of office, you are making a promise to the people who elected you (and even to those who voted against you) that you will faithfully carry out the duties of the office.

Not run away so you can chase after a bigger piece of candy.

Then there’s Sen. Arlen Specter, who jumped from Republican to Democrat because he’s come to believe that he can’t be re-elected in Pennsylvania as a Republican. That’s like a lion painting stripes on his body and telling everyone that he’s now a zebra.

Again, the blatant opportunism is breathtaking. And part of the reason that it’s breathtaking is because it stinks. Specter apparently believes that the most important thing in the world is for him to keep his seat in the Senate.

Palin and Specter are two examples of how corrupt our political process has become. They — and many other politicians like them — have decided that gaining and holding office is the be-all and end-all of their lives.

From Main Street to Pennsylvania Avenue we are beset with career politicians whose only real goal is to stay in office. I know Palin just resigned her office, but it certainly looks as if she’s done that so she can better prepare herself to run for the White House.

Where are political leaders of the stripe of George Washington, who refused to allow himself to be made king of the newly-independent United States of America? Or Thomas Jefferson, who drove himself into bankruptcy because he served his nation rather than tend to his own finances? Or Abraham Lincoln, who, when faced with his Cabinet’s near-unanimous opposition to the Emancipation Proclamation, went ahead and issued it anyway?

What we have today is a brand of politician who has never worked at any job except politics, who has never added a penny to the nation’s gross domestic product, who clings to political office in preference to solving the nation’s problems.

I have long advocated term limits for all political offices. Palin and Specter are two prime examples of why we need term limits.

Opponents have raised arguments against term limits. Three of them are:

* By forcing experienced leaders out of office after a fixed number of terms we would be losing the benefits of their wisdom and experience.

* If we get rid of the elected politicians we still leave behind the unelected professional staffers who make most of the decisions anyway. In other words, we leave government to the insiders, who will stay at their jobs no matter who gets elected.

* We already have a mechanism for limiting an officeholder’s terms: don’t re-elect her or him. Why do we need to impose term limits?

Here are my thoughts on those objections, in reverse order.

It’s extraordinarily difficult to oust a sitting member of Congress. The incumbent holds tremendous advantages over a challenger. The incumbent can usually raise far more campaign funding than a challenger, mainly because he can promise his support of those causes that his financial “angels” want backed. In many elections, congressmen run unopposed, because potential challengers are daunted by the difficulties of knocking off an incumbent.

The staff members who work for congressmen and senators really do form an unelected bureaucracy that in all too many instances shape the votes that get cast on the floor of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Not many members of Congress have an understanding of the intricacies of the issues they must face. They depend on their aides to do the necessary research and make recommendations.

This gives the staffs a lot of power. I know from my years of advocating stronger efforts in space exploration and development that it’s a rare politician who has any understanding of what’s involved. You have to work on the staffers.

If the politician is forced out of office by term limits and the staff remains in place, what have we gained? But that’s a specious argument, on two points. First, a newly-incoming congresswoman will bring some aides of her own into the office with her. Second, if we don’t get rid of the incumbent, we will never get rid of the staff aides.

Term limits will force a change in the congressional staffs, as well.

Finally, why not get rid of the wisdom and experience of long-standing officeholders? They’re the ones who are not solving the problems we face! After spending most of their adult lives inside the Washington Beltway, they are no longer able to see much beyond the next election, anyway.

We need term limits. But how can we get the members of Congress to impose term limits on themselves? Get them to pass a term-limits bill that exempts those who are currently members of the House or Senate.

That might work. I wonder if Specter would vote for that? Or would President Palin sign it?

Naples resident Ben Bova is the author of 120 books, including “The Immortality Factor,” his latest novel. Bova’s Web site address is www.benbova.com.

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