Should We Be Saved From Ourselves?
A couple weeks ago here, I alluded to Mayor Bloomberg's recent announcement that he wanted to change New York City's term limit law such that he could run for a third term, staying in office beyond the end of 2009. Actually, the active voice is incorrect in this case: what Bloomberg wants is for the City Council to pass a measure not repealing term limits, but lengthening the permissible tenure of an office-holder from the current two terms to three. The measure would apply only to current office-holders, which means that the approximately three dozen Councilmembers who otherwise would be looking for work next November have a strong personal incentive to vote for it. A Council hearing on the question, already in progress when I walked by City Hall on the way to a meeting about five hours ago, is still in progress: I've got it on TV here as I type.
Bloomberg has drawn fire regarding this move for its evidently self-serving nature, and for his own shift of position on the question: he once described attempts to change the term limits law, which was twice upheld at the ballot box in the face of efforts to repeal it, as "disgusting." His rationale for wanting to stay on strikes me as questionable: Bloomberg believes that his financial background and proven management acumen will be vital to the prosperity of the city as it heads into what promises to be a bleak economic era. The problem here is that the economic situation--which is much more closely tied to the health of the financial industry in New York, where Wall Street accounts for so much of our city and state tax revenues, than anywhere else--as of January 1, 2010, is largely unknowable as of October or November 2008. The implication is that Bloomberg, who wanted to run for president this year but couldn't find an opening as the two most center-friendly candidates won their parties' nominations, was looking for any excuse to remain in his other dream job.
None of which is to say that he might not be right on the specifics of the crisis the city will face and his possibly unique suitability to lead New York through that crisis.
When government budgets collapse, the big battle is over where to make the painful cuts. Pretty much any of Bloomberg's plausible successors would take office owing favors to their individual and institutional supporters, distorting that process. The foundation of Bloomberg's success in office--and he has been a successful mayor, even considering a few recent reversals and disappointments--has been that he's too rich to be bought. That could be more important over the years of the next mayoral term than ever. Poll results suggest that if Bloomberg, whose approval rating remains around 70 percent, has the opportunity to run for a third term, he'll win--even as other polling shows support in the abstract for the current law.
The problem opponents have with the proposal is that it would accomplish through the legislative process a result that has failed through the democratic process. For some--including, evidently, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo--term limits even at the conceptual level are such a bane that any means to get rid of them are justified. I'm skeptical about term limits too, but I'm much more skeptical that incumbent politicians who just happen to be acting in their own interests (and have the near-unanimous support of the business community, publishing moguls and other powerful stakeholders) can also act in ours, just this once, in an "emergency"... and be trusted not to do so again. If democracy means anything, it means the right to make (arguably) bad choices and the responsibility to live with them.
The counter-proposal is to take the immediate steps necessary to put another referendum on term limits--either the current incumbents-only measure now under consideration in Council, or an all-out repeal--before the public for a March vote. The argument against this idea is that such special votes always draw lower turnout and are more easily influenced by powerful interests. That's true enough. But I think the long-term integrity of New York City's political process demands that we go this route, flawed though it might be. I hope the Council votes down this proposal.