Patience, vision, and term limits
Term limits as a concept makes sense to most people. That said for nearly half of our nation’s existence our presidents operated on an honor system and followed the precedent set by the first guy to hold the job and called it quits after two terms. Heck, it wasn’t until FDR pushed the envelope that an actual cap was placed on the amount of time you can serve in that office.
Further implementation of term limits continues to be a common refrain from disaffected activists and marginalized politicos around the country. Now we have learned that after a boatload of controversy and a Supreme Court ruling North Dakotans will be voting on adopting them here in the fall.
Polling from Measure 1’s proponents indicates that a staggering 81% of North Dakota voters support amending the State Constitution to add 8-year limits to the legislature and the governor. Recently, committee chairman Jared Hendrix has used this polling to trumpet that the people are “tired of business as usual and status quo politicians.”
That notion of a “good old boys club” being the source of all one’s problems can be comforting, which is why it is so appealing for people. Governor Burgum himself used it to get elected in 2016. Ultimately all that belief does is numb the soul, allowing cynicism to take root; permitting rationalizations and assumptions about those who simply disagree with you. That’s why it actually helps to know your legislator, which was the norm for me growing up in rural North Dakota in the 90s.
I’m from the southwestern corner of the state, more particularly a small farming depot called Mott. Nestled next to the Cannonball River, Mott the Spot is a classic “place of no consequence, except for those fortunate enough to live there.”
When you’re a community mostly visited by out of state pheasant hunters and temporary harvest workers from South Africa, it helps when your legislative representatives can be local. It’s a heck of a lot easier to get a politician’s ear if you can expect to see him down at the local watering hole on any given afternoon.
For the first two decades of my life, Hettinger County’s district was represented by two men named Jim Kerzman and Aaron Krauter. They served for around 20 years in Bismarck for our little backwater south of I-94. Both were hard working farmers, active and present in the community and accomplished a great deal for the constituents they represented.
The late Kerzman’s legacy has become particularly relevant to all North Dakotan’s recently, as the 2007 abortion ban “trigger” law that he sponsored is on the verge of going into effect pending ongoing litigation by the Red River Women’s Clinic. That particular bill came 17 years into Kerzman’s political career, and is one he very well could have had no role in if North Dakota had term limits in place.
Whatever your feelings on the issue of abortion, the law Kerzman sponsored was the result of decades of perseverance and patience on the part of those lawmakers that supported it and their constituents who called for it. It took a great deal of bipartisanship to move the bill through both chambers, with Krauter and many other Democrat-NPL members voting in favor, some of whom are still in office.
A contemporary of Kerzman and Krauter is outgoing Majority Leader Sen. Rich Wardner of Dickinson, who has been a stalwart presence in the ND GOP since 1991. Even with his time in office coming to an end this fall, Wardner has a more critical view of the term limits measure than the voters from that poll.
The rhetoric of the measure’s proponents is rooted in a small government perspective, and argues that simply having a machine that requires so many steady hands is actually the entire problem, preferring rules that force new blood into politics. Wardner believes the push behind the measure is motivated by certain political faction’s desires to make a foothold in the legislature more than anything else.
“They want control. They say they want less government and are concerned about freedom and liberty. They want to use the name ‘Republican’ to get elected, and that’s fine,” Wardner said, “They think that if term limits are implemented, it makes it easier for them to get elected.”
The most obvious point that skeptics like Wardner make is that based on the numbers, the voters have made term limits practically unnecessary due to the surprising rate of legislative turnover in the last ten years. Even with all of the new blood flowing into the legislature, Wardner still feels that voters should have the choice to maintain the presence and vision of an incumbent to ensure the execution and implementation of long-term plans.
“When you talk about having a plan for the state, let’s say for example the Legacy Fund, the whole premise is that oil revenue is going to go away some day. We have to take care of the future, because there will be a time when that is gone,” Wardner said, “If people can be patient, we can use the earnings from the legacy fund to lower taxes and still have this fund producing revenue when oil is no longer there. There won’t be that vision if people are only in the legislature for 8 years.”
Wardner argues that implementing term limits will succeed only in diminishing the average North Dakotan’s ability to decide for themselves who their legislators and governor can be, robbing those institutions of the memory and experience to realize meaningful policy. Given my own personal experience, I can see his point.
It might do North Dakotans some good to truly take the time and consider what they’d be giving up by implementing term limits in this way. In essence we’d be giving up our freedom to choose, which is the furthest thing from attaining liberty that I can think of.
The amount of effort it takes to harness the engines of government in any direction at any level can be extraordinary. Like any machinery that so many depend on, the argument can be made that it pays dividends to have people operating it who know how the dang thing works. It also helps if their vision can navigate around pitfalls rather than careening headfirst off of a cliff like Thelma and Louise.