Richard Reeves

O, Democracy: A Coast to Coast Mess

NEW YORK -- Ask about Mayor Michael Bloomberg these days and you get a classic on-the-one-hand answer: "On the one hand, he's been a good mayor." Some say a great one. "On the other hand, it's outrageous what he's doing on term limits."

What he has done, of course, is to persuade the City Council to vote out term limits for city officials. The limits, approved by voters in referendums in 1993 and 1996, would force Bloomberg to resign when his second term ends this year. It was not a hard sell with the Council, because it meant that members would also be eligible for four more years in jobs they may not do very well in but evidently like very much.

The voters? C'mon. Bloomberg the talented billionaire, perhaps the most self-financed candidate in the history of the Republic, pays his own way and governs as he pleases. Except for the fact he does not speak Latin, he could be a Roman emperor. The Roman democracy, by the way, along with ancient Greece, had term limits -- usually one -- on officials below the emperor.

So, barring court action, Bloomberg, whom I will vote for again and who would have been my choice as President Obama's vice president, will be pretty much mayor-for-life. Paying his own way, the mayor has presented himself as a not-very-democratic Democrat, Republican and Independent, whatever it took.

Meanwhile, 3,000 miles to the west in California, probably the most democratic of states, if you consider its initiative and referendum laws and its term-limit laws, has turned its politics in a game of musical chairs and its government into a dangerous laughingstock. The basic idea of California's laws and mores is that the less its officials know about governance the better. That is especially true of the state's talk radio-whipped Republicans, who are practically a cult, The Church of No Taxation, with or without representation.

As you may have noticed, the California State Legislature had to lock itself in to get a budget that pretends to close the state's current $42 billion gap between revenues and spending. In this economy, the numbers almost certainly won't hold up for long, but maybe the legislators who voted for it (Democrats) and those who voted against everything (Republicans) will have tried to move on to other elected jobs.

Since a 1990 referendum on term limits, California has restricted members of its lower house, the Assembly, to three two-year terms -- six years -- and Senators to two four-year terms. So from the day they get to the state capital, Sacramento, legislators begin manuevering for their next job, in the other house or, better, in non-term-limited elected jobs like city councils, county boards of supervisors, judgeships -- whatever can be traded for or won. It is no accident, for instance, that California schools have gone from about the best in the country to among the worst. Some of that decline goes back to 1978's Proposition 13, capping local property taxes and mandating super-majorities in legislative votes on budgets and taxes. The budget agreement approved last Thursday after the lock-up cuts public school funding by $8 billion and takes hundreds of millions more from the state's colleges and universities, once the jewel in the crown of California governance.

Term limits seemed like a good idea at the time -- at least to me. I remembered writing a piece in Newsweek, endorsing them as a cure-all for what ailed government in the 1970s. One of the letters I got talking about such reforms was from an obviously idealistic young legislator in Montana. His name was Max Baucus, and he went on to serve four years in the U.S. House of Representatives and, now, 31 in the Senate.

So it goes. Democracy is an act of faith and a work in progress. Yes, as Churchill said, it is better than anything else men have tried. But this is a messy time on both coasts for what we like to call the last, best hope of mankind.

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