Howard Rich's Blog

August 11, 2008

Mirror Syndrome

Filed under: Uncategorized — howierich @ 2:48 pm

It’s no secret that elected officials are prone to viewing the world through the distorted prism of their own indispensability.

In fact, an old Washington, D.C. proverb maintains that “every Congressman looks in the mirror and sees a Senator – and every Senator looks in the mirror and sees a President.”

Appropriately dubbed the “mirror syndrome,” this tendency of politicians to regard themselves as transcendent figures doesn’t stop at the banks of the Potomac. Sadly, it extends to state capitals and seats of local government all across our nation.

In last month’s New York Times, for example, a Nebraska State Senator arrogantly asserted that the movement to establish term limits in that state was undertaken for the sole purpose of removing him from office.

“There’s nobody else they feared enough to get term limits for,” State Sen. Ernie Chambers told the Times. “They’d get rid of everybody else to get rid of me.”

As if that wasn’t narcissistic enough, Chambers grudgingly assented to the will of Nebraska voters by saying “I wouldn’t have wanted to die on the floor. That would have given my enemies too much pleasure.”

With all due respect to Mr. Chambers, the term limits movement has absolutely nothing to do with him, his “enemies” (or friends), or any of the beliefs he holds, or his future rendezvous “at some disputed barricade.”

Similarly, it has absolutely nothing to do with the political persuasions or personal preferences of the thousands of elected officials across this country currently serving in term-limited legislatures.

Instead, term limits is about a philosophy of government – an ideal of citizen leadership that dates back to the world’s earliest democracies.

In ancient Athenian democracy, for example, citizens were prohibited from serving consecutive annual terms on the boule, one of the world’s first legislative bodies. Additionally, no citizen could serve on the boule more than twice in his lifetime, or serve as the leader of the boule more than once.

Additionally, the Roman Republic prohibited censors from serving more than one term, and mandated term limits for numerous other positions, including consul – its highest elected office.

What these forbearers of modern democracy realized was that rotation in office served two fundamentally beneficial purposes – the constant infusion of new ideas and fresh perspectives into government, and the mitigation of the potential for officeholders to abuse their positions of public trust for personal gain.

We need look no further than U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens’ “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska or the estimated $3 billion in pork barrel spending that U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd has funneled to his home state of West Virginia (which has no fewer than 50 taxpayer-funded projects bearing his name) to see the rationale behind this safeguard.

In the fifteen state legislatures in which term limits have been implemented in the United States, they are providing a vital check against this sort of abuse by elevating the democratic ideal of merit-based decision making above self-serving political expediency.

Simply put, when the personal interests of powerful, entrenched politicians are removed from the equation, a strange thing happens – the needs of individual citizens and taxpayers come to the fore. The results are better laws, less corruption and more accountable, cost-effective government.

It is for precisely these reasons – not the like or dislike of any one individual – that voters in Maine and California recently rejected attempts to weaken term limits in their states. They had seen firsthand the proof of the pudding, and wanted more of the same.

The elevation of citizen leadership in our democratic institutions is a cause that all elected officials should support, even in those cases where the outcome is a necessary limitation on their personal power.

Similarly, no elected official should be so deluded as to presume that these limitations constitute a personal vendetta – no matter what delusions they entertain when they gaze into the mirror.

The author is Chairman of Americans for Limited Government

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