Houston Chronicle’s Scorched Earth Campaign Against Term Limits Needs A Prompt And Full Response
As the only major newspaper in town, the Houston Chronicle has an even greater than usual professional and moral obligation to furnish balanced news coverage and keep its reporting and editorializing segregated. It has fallen short of that goal relative to the subject of term limits for Houston city officials.
The Chronicle has followed a scorched earth, combined editorial/reporting campaign to try to reverse the still strong majority wish of Houstonians for term limits. Disturbingly, you read little or nothing in the Chronicle, reporting-wise or op-ed-wise, regarding the voices and opinions of those who favor term limits. Nor do you read in the Chronicle about the constantly growing dominance of the term limit movement in this country at the state and local government levels.
It seems evident the Chronicle’s long-time opposition to term limits has now greatly accelerated in a very coordinated reporting and editorializing way. Witness: (a) its columnist John Williams’ article on December 16, 2002; (b) its reporter Kristen Mack’s article on December 25, 2002; (c) its publication of syndicated columnist David S. Broder’s column on January 6, 2003; (d) its editorial on February 3, 2003; (e) its editorial cartoon on February 12, 2003; and (f) its editorial on February 16, 2003, wherein it is has now progressed to where it is even purporting to speak the minds of those in favor of term limits. Apparently the Chronicle now feels it is the only repository of worthwhile knowledge about term limits.
The inherent conflict-of-interest in this obviously coordinated editorial/reporting attack seems totally lost upon the Chronicle. Conversely, the Chronicle has gone to great lengths to absolutely excoriate the accounting profession, investment bankers et al for conflicts-of-interest in the way they offer advice to clients and then evaluate the results of that advice.
None of the City’s elected officials will take formal steps to follow the Chronicle’s advice and try to eliminate term limits, for they know that would be political suicide. Therefore, State Representative Garnet Coleman has chosen to do the Chronicle’s heavy lifting by doing an end run around local control and introducing HB775 in the state legislature. See HB775 button above, and read that piece very carefully. For HB775 is deviously designed to effectively do away with voter control of term limits, whether you vote YES or NO on that proposed constitutional amendment.
What Are The Real Facts About Term Limits?
Central to the discussion of term limits is the fundamental truth stated by Lord Acton, the noted British historian from a century ago, wherein he said, “ Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
This truism is placed into proper context when it is noted that 98.5% of incumbents who stood for reelection in 2002 were reelected to the non-term limited US Congress. That “approval rating” hardly jibes with the low esteem the public holds for politicians, per public opinion poll after poll. Of course, the 98.5% approval of congressional incumbents doesn’t quite equal Saddam Hussein’s past 100% “approval ratings” at the ballot box. So maybe not having congressional term limits is slightly beneficial.
Many states would now have laws term limiting US senators and representatives, except that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in U. S. Term Limits v. Thornton on May 22, 1995 rendered constitutionally unenforceable 23 state laws limiting congressional terms.
On the other hand, the most powerful office in the world, the presidency of the US, is constitutionally specifically term limited. We have done just fine under that requirement. Is the acquired expertise and knowledge of the mayor, city controller and city council members more valuable, more important, and more difficult to replace than that of the president---or comparable, even in the remotest? Hardly.
Term limits at the state and local levels were not affected by the 1995 US Supreme Court decision. According to a 1995 study published by U. S. Term Limits (www.termlimits.org), municipal level term limits have spread silently but steadily across the country. The study stated that over 58 million Americans live in localities with limits of various sorts, and more than 17,000 politicians serve in 2,890 term limited cities, counties and towns.
According to the study, local term limits issues pass by an average of 70%. (Sound familiar, Houstonians?)
It should be of real interest to Houstonians that eight of the ten largest US cities (all of which have Democrat majorities and have large economically disadvantaged and ethnic minority groups) have term limits.
So What Is Supposedly Wrong With Term Limits? What Are The Issues?
The oft-repeated complaint from some elected city officials that they are “still learning the ropes after six years” says more about the inadequacy of the official than the complexity of the job. It is a simple task to acquire a good working knowledge of basic city services, believe us. As a difficulty comparison, one can graduate from law school in little more than the two-year first term of an elected city official, if one goes during summer sessions.
If they are truly interested in effectively serving the public, elected city officials should learn as much as possible about city operations before they run for office, instead of relying solely on on-the-job-training. That’s what non-elected city employees have to do. When hired, every one of them has to meet existing specifications for their job. Yet our elected city officials don’t even have to prove they can balance their own checkbook before being entrusted with spending more than $2.5 billion of taxpayers’ money each year. Scary indeed.
The Chronicle and other opponents state that term limits increases the power of the entrenched bureaucracy. Now who would be more likely to root out entrenched bureaucracy? Entrenched elected officials before the advent of term limits, who of perceived necessity fawned at the feet of the mayor in our strong-mayor form of government, or freshly elected crusaders? As previously pointed out, two years is sufficient time for an intelligent and motivated newly elected council member, who has taken the time to prepare for the job, to gain a good grasp of city government.
If only the Chronicle and other opponents of term limits were concerned even a fraction as much about the people who actually run the City, the power brokers and those at the City trough.
Another frequently cited reason for doing away with term limits is that it has supposedly led to too much bickering and political partisanship due to council members jockeying for their next political office.
This complaining has come mostly from those who continue to back the City’s long-time profligate spending that has led to the current fiscal crisis. Most of those fresh new faces who, thanks to term limits, have raised increasing opposition to the City’s uncontrolled spending just happen to be fiscally conservative Republicans.
But, lest Republicans become too smug, it should be noted that some of the Republicans elected to city council have begun to waffle on their on-the-record previous commitment to term limits. Ask them, and their Democrat associates on city council, what their current position is regarding term limits. You will be able to find their positions on term limits and several other issues on the Taxpayers For Accountability (TFA) website, www.texastfa.com , once TFA has sent out its usual election year questionnaires. TFA is totally unaffiliated with our CPA group.
For the record, current council member/mayoral candidate Michael Berry and District G council candidate Jeff Daily have already gone on record this year as being strongly in favor of term limits.
Republican waffling on term limits is not limited to city council. Recall that part of the Republican “Contract With America” included the advocacy of term limits. But after wresting control of Congress from the Democrats, some Republicans have commenced waffling, or even reversing course, regarding term limits. Not all have had the political integrity to live up to their commitment, as did US representative Steve Largent.
Now that Republicans control both the executive and legislative branches of the national and Texas governments, it will be interesting to see how well they stick to their once strong commitment to term limits.
Another part of the job-hopping criticism of term limits has to do with the perceived sudden partisan bickering and criticism of the mayor’s very evident financial mismanagement from those now going out of office or seeking to switch to at-large council positions or city controller. The answer to that supposedly new problem is a real no-brainer.
Before term limits, most council members made a career out of the position. So long as they were there, they were constrained by the almost dictatorial power of the mayor in our strong-mayor form of city government. Council members serving single-member districts particularly had to worry about retribution from the mayor if they opposed him/her. The mayor sets and controls the agenda for council meetings. Council members cannot place items on the agenda.
Thanks to term limits, council members have no choice but to be ultimately freed from mayoral retribution and can speak out in their last term. Plus those single-member district council members who are seeking to run for at-large positions or city controller will suddenly not have as strong a concern about mayoral retribution and are expectedly speaking out more in opposition to the mayor’s failures.
Besides, since when is it bad to have more light shed on mayoral failures or weaknesses?
The Chronicle seems rather hypocritical about this whole partisanship issue. After backing Lee P. Brown in all three of his mayoral elections, the Chronicle has suddenly seen the light about the mayor’s bankrupt handling of the City’s finances (even though this corner has warned them time and time again over the years, even appearing twice before the Chronicle editorial board).
After backing Brown during all of those years of his very obvious mismanagement, the Chronicle is finally criticizing his performance. Yet, according to the Chronicle, council members are engaging in partisan bickering when doing the same thing as the Chronicle.
In its February 16, 2003 editorial, the Chronicle incredibly blames term limits for Mayor Lee P. Brown’s terrible performance over his six years, positing that because of term limits credible mayoral candidates decided to wait until Brown was forced out of office by term limits. They fail to mention that the Chronicle put its endorsement power behind Brown in all three elections, regardless of his terrible record, and yet Republican Orlando Sanchez still came within a whisker of beating Democrat Brown in his bid for a third term in this Democrat-majority city.
In that same February 16 editorial, the Chronicle states---“If term limits were good for Houston, one might expect municipal governance to be appreciably better after the adoption of term limits than it was before. Not even the most ardent supporter of term limits would make that claim---“.
Apparently, even after all these years, the Chronicle still doesn’t understand that our strong mayor form of city government essentially is a benevolent (we hope) dictatorship. The sorry results over these six years rest primarily at the feet of the always Chronicle-supported mayor, who totally controls the agenda at every council meeting.
Interestingly, the Chronicle’s February 16 editorial states that the clock should not be started on the evaluation of term limits until the first batch of incumbents were turned out en masse at the end of 1997. Following the Chronicle’s line of reasoning, we should have kept that batch and not criminally indicted any of them, send one to prison, or otherwise disposed of them. That Chronicle-exempted group was a really sterling bunch. Amazing.
Chronicle Asks If Term Limits Has Benefited Houston
In his December 16, 2002 column, the Chronicle’s John Williams asked the paper’s standard question---“Can you list tangible evidence that Houston benefited as the result of term limits that voters approved in 1991”?
The simplest answer is (drum roll, please): term limiting of Bob Lanier and Lee P. Brown. They will have done tremendous damage to the city's finances in just six years each. Just one example is long-term debt. Lanier took office in 1992 and upped city debt 67% in his six years and Brown already has managed to outdo even Lanier, by approximately doubling the City’s debt to almost $10 billion in just his first five years. No telling what the debt will be when Brown leaves in January 2004. Heaven help us.
And please don't tell us that the longtime and well-known incompetence of the Chronicle's thrice-anointed Lee P. Brown would have gotten him eventually booted out, because that leads us to the real answer to Mr. Williams’ currently unfair question.
Asking if term limits has had a significant impact is like asking a farmer how his three-legged stool is working, when he is trying to milk his cow with two legs of the stool missing.
The two missing legs here are: (a) significant limitations on permissible campaign contributions by those doing business with the city or appointed by the mayor, as well as other strengthening of ethics in city government (see button City Ethics); and (b) appropriate limitations on city spending (see button City Rev/Cap).
Regarding (a), it would, among other things, stop office holders and candidates from being funded by those who do business with the city, the primary source of city campaign funds. Most elected city officials, even after the advent of term limits, continue to be beholden to those who do business with the city, particularly the mayor's office in this city of the strong-mayor form of government. That has to be stopped. A proposed city charter amendment to do exactly that has been vetted by savvy attorneys and policy wonks and awaits an expected citizen initiative (see button City Ethics).
One only has to look at certain elected officials of Harris County and Houston ISD to see the highly undesirable mixture of no term limits and extensive political contributions from those doing business with the governmental entity. As pointed out so well a short time ago by the Chronicle’s own Dan Feldstein, the separate fiefdoms of the county commissioners are outstanding case studies of how those at the public trough reciprocate come election time.
And the spouse of the president of the Houston ISD board annually receives very sizable contracts from HISD. Yet the Chronicle has never taken issue with this.
Regarding (b), a related proposed city charter amendment (see button City Rev/Cap), authored by Citizens For Public Accountability, already has been ballot qualified by Let The People Vote On Taxes PAC. The proposed amendment would require voter approval before the cost of city government can exceed the combined growth in population and inflation in any given year. The Chronicle has basically refused to even acknowledge the existence of this proposed city charter amendment. We predict it will drive the November 2003 election of city officials, even though the charter amendment will not be voted upon until sometime in 2004..
If we had (a) and (b) to go with existing term limits, we could then tell our elected city officials how long they could stay in office, how much of our money they could take from us and spend, and how they had to behave while in office. Wouldn't that be grand? Then the Chronicle could legitimately ask as to the benefits of term limits, as well as those of (a) and (b).
Incidentally, current city council members should be insulted when the Chronicle insinuates that there has been a diminution of council capabilities under term limits. We disagree with them on many things, but current council members are head and shoulders over many of their predecessor political hacks as to abilities.
Under the Chronicle’s no-term-limits scenario, we could currently have a perpetual dream team of the likes of that brilliant quarterback Lee P. Brown throwing to his receivers (and we do mean receivers) like Ben Reyes, Michael Yarbrough and John Castillo. The team would continue to receive (seen and unseen) financial support from its perpetual backers (power brokers and people at the city trough). What a highly disturbing thought.
Not only must we retain term limits for elected city officials, we need to insert the two missing legs of the stool---by amending the city charter to (a) impose significant limitations on permissible campaign contributions by those doing business with the city or appointed by the mayor, as well as other strengthening of ethics in city government (see button City Ethics), and (b) imposing limitations on city spending (see button City Rev/Cap).
You can accomplish (a) and (b) by voting for the related proposed city charter amendments when they appear on the ballot.
In the meantime, don’t let the Chronicle, or anyone else, bully or mislead you into doing away with term limits. Let’s keep the fresh new faces coming into city government and let the perpetual office seekers at least periodically earn a living in the real world. Surely out of the greatly more than one million adults in this wonderful city who are not on the public payroll there are more than enough qualified and willing persons to periodically fill a paltry 16 elected city offices.