For the past 20 years, an idea frequently floated for reforming the political system has been to set term limits for elected officials.
Term limits were part of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” and for a time they became quite a fad in the states — 15 of them have some form of limitation on how long a legislator can serve.
There has not been a serious move in recent years to impose term limits on the members of Congress, but it is still an idea that pops up from time to time in political races.
David Perdue, the Republican nominee in the Senate race, has promised to vote for a term limits amendment if he’s elected to replace Saxby Chambliss.
“I don’t think the founders ever envisioned the rise of the career politician,” Perdue said. “They wanted people from various backgrounds to bring their unique experience to representative government, help solve the issues of the day, and then return home.”
Wes Cantrell, a Woodstock minister who will start his first term in the General Assembly next year, also pledges he will make term limits for state legislators one of his priorities.
“It’s time for Georgia to reclaim her citizen-led legislature,” Cantrell said in a recent newspaper interview. “This will be a difficult process, but I am determined to do everything in my power and to work with others to see this happen.”
Despite the well-meaning intentions of Perdue and Cantrell, Georgia already has something far more effective than any law when it comes to imposing term limits on officeholders. They are called elections.
It is ultimately the voters who make the decision on Election Day whether they will keep someone in office or kick them out. That’s the way it should be. Georgia voters, as it turns out, do a very good job of imposing whatever term limits are needed.
In January 2005, Republicans took majority control of the Georgia Senate and House of Representatives for the first time in the state’s modern era. Compare the list of lawmakers from then to the list of legislators who will start a new term next January, and you will see there has been a dramatic turnover in the membership.
Of the 180 House members who took the oath of office in 2005, only 66 of them will be taking that same oath next January (assuming that all the incumbents with general election opposition are re-elected this fall). Nearly two-thirds of the House seats will have changed hands over the past decade.
Of the 56 state senators who were serving in 2005, just 16 of them will still be in office next January. There will have been a change of more than two-thirds of the members.
What happened to all these incumbents? Some of them, like Jay Neal and Michael Harden, got jobs in the Nathan Deal administration. Some, like Doug Collins and Tom Graves, left to run for Congress. Some, like Dan Lakly and Quincy Murphy, died in office. One of them, Glenn Richardson, resigned after it was revealed he had an affair with a lobbyist.
There were also a lot of legislators who were told by the voters it was time to go home.
In this year’s primary elections, Gwinnett County voters got rid of Don Balfour, the longest-serving Republican in the state Senate. Steve Thompson, the longest-serving Senate Democrat, was defeated in his primary as well. That same fate also happened to Jack Murphy, a 10-year Senate veteran and the chairman of some influential committees. Over in the House, incumbents Willie Talton, Charles Gregory and Sam Moore lost their seats in the primary.
Two years ago, voters turned out incumbent lawmakers like Keith Heard, Doug McKillip, Steve Davis, Charlice Byrd, Doug Stoner, Miriam Paris, Johnny Grant and Kip Smith.
I could go on, but you get the idea. If incumbent legislators in Georgia don’t leave office voluntarily, the voters have been more than willing to show them the door. When you add the natural forces of attrition to this voter disapproval, you get a robust turnover of elected officials.
In short, Georgia’s voters have done a commendable job of enforcing term limits. They have proved we don’t need a law to accomplish that.
Tom Crawford is the editor of the Georgia Report. His column appears Wednesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.