Term Limits? We Don’t Need No Stinking Term Limits!

So it’s nearly official that Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York (and onetime member of a fantasy New York trifecta in the presidential race), will seek to overturn the city’s term limits in order to run for a third term as mayor. Here’s an A.P. article and here’s an excerpt from the New York Times piece that broke the news:

Mr. Bloomberg, whose second term ends in 2009, is barred by law from running for re-election. So he will propose revising the city’s 15-year-old term limits law, which restricts him and dozens of other elected leaders to two four-year terms, those people said.

In his appearance on Thursday, they said, Mr. Bloomberg, a former Wall Street trader and the founder of a billion-dollar financial data firm, will argue that the worldwide financial crisis — with its potentially severe impact on New York City — demands his steady hand and business experience.

The decision to challenge the term limits law, which was twice approved by New York voters, represents a remarkable about-face for Mr. Bloomberg. He has repeatedly said he supports such constraints on elected leaders, dismissed the idea that anyone is indispensable, and once called an effort to revise the limits “disgusting.” People briefed on the matter said Mr. Bloomberg, 66, would seek to change the law through legislation in the City Council.

Mr. Bloomberg’s strategy carries significant political risk. Several polls, conducted over the last few months, show widespread support for keeping the law in place. City voters passed term limits by overwhelming margins in 1993, and reaffirmed their support in 1996.

I’m not sure I agree with the “significant political risk.” Because of his independence, wealth, and sky-high approval rating, he could probably win in a cakewalk and bear few scars from the electoral mud-slinging.

Bloomberg’s move made me think back to the September 11 attack in New York. The city happened to be holding primary elections that day: Mayor Rudy Giuliani was nearly done serving his second term and the race was on to elect a replacement. A few days after the attack, I wrote an Op-Ed arguing that Giuliani should be temporarily kept on in light of the extraordinary circumstances. The piece didn’t get published — I can’t remember why it was rejected — but, for what it’s worth, here’s what I wrote at the time:

September 18, 2001

I am not in the mood to, among other things, vote for Mark Green or Fernando Ferrer or Michael Bloomberg. I am not in the mood, given the war zone we collectively entered on Tuesday, to turn our city over to a mayor other than the one now on duty.

It is not simply the thought of squeezing in the primary, runoff, and general elections amidst the funerals. It is the thought of installing a new mayor less than four months after a catastrophe that will demand years’ worth of bold leadership. We cannot yet fathom the complexity of the puzzle that has to be reassembled: city services, transportation, real estate, communications, and our psyches have all been scrambled beyond recognition. As it now stands, a new mayor and an entirely new City Council will take over on January 1. They will step into a state of emergency, a state of chaos, their abilities further diminished by the loss of so many key fire, police, and administrative personnel. A better solution would be to delay the mayoral election, or at least the mayor’s installation, for three to six months.

This proposal, which is becoming a whisper campaign even among prominent Democrats, has nothing and everything to do with Rudolph Giuliani’s stewardship during the past few horrific days.

His harshest critics — and who, at some point, has not been among them? — concede that Mr. Giuliani has shown an inspiring fortitude and a deep-felt empathy. He has acted the way we would all like to think we would act in his shoes.

But more valuable than his pitch-perfect crisis management is the promise of continuity. It may be that Messrs. Green or Ferrer or Hevesi or Vallone or Bloomberg or Badillo would take many wise steps. And we will ask one of them to do so. But not yet; not without giving Mr. Giuliani the opportunity to put to work his eight years’ experience and his unique understanding of the landscape we have just entered. None of us can yet imagine how the following months will unfold; we don’t know yet how we feel about yesterday, much less tomorrow.

Every mayoral candidate will tell you that he is doing everything possible to divorce politics from the tragedy. The boldest and most humane recourse would be to defer the politics until the tragedy is more manageable, giving the mayor and the city time to begin a recovery, and giving the mayoral candidates a chance to hold an election that everyone can live with. Constitutionalists might say that moving the election breaks the orderly democratic transfer of power. But in fact, a postponed vote would produce a far more orderly transfer.

Privately, many Democrats will say they don’t want to give Mr. Giuliani one extra hour in office. Publicly, they say that extending Mr. Giuliani’s term by pushing the vote is impossible. It is not: it would, however, require an unprecedented show of unity among Democrats and Republicans in Albany. Legislation would be required to amend state election law and the State Constitution. Democrats cite other complications: the difficulties of holding an election in the heart of winter, for instance, or the need to recalculate government pensions based on an elongated or shrunken term.

The strongest Democratic objection is a democratic one. Martin Connor, the Senate’s Democratic minority leader (whose district includes the Financial District) and an election-law expert, concedes that moving the election is “a legal possibility.” But, Connor says, “The overwhelming political sentiment is to demonstrate that we will hold elections in the year scheduled. People feel strongly about this, [they are] pretty proud of the fact that during World War II, going back to the Civil War, we’ve always conducted elections in the same year.”

Moving the election, Connor feels, would award the terrorists another victory. The truth is, the important victory is the next one, measured by how quickly and well we right ourselves amid this extraordinary disaster, a disaster that in some ways has only now begun.

On the one hand, you could say I was spectacularly wrong that the city couldn’t rebound strongly without Giuliani.

On the other hand, maybe the reason it did rebound was because Bloomberg was the guy who got elected.

On the third hand, just because New York City is losing its appetite for term limits doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be embraced elsewhere … like in U.S. Congress?


Term limits are necessary because everyone hates Congress, but everyone loves their congressman and the pork he brings home. I've lived my entire adult life with Steny Hoyer as my congressman. He's out of touch with most of his constituency, no one here can name anything they like about him except the fact that he has power and has used it to keep the local military base free from being BRAC'd. So powerful is the pork that he promises that he often runs without Republican opposition.

In college I knew people who said they always voted a straight party-line ballot. Except for their congressman. Asked what made him different the answer was usually something like "he got my cousin into the Naval Academy" or "he helped out my brother with a tax problem." Issues, policies, moral character, effectiveness... all irrelevant when there's pork ready to be traded for votes and power.


One argument FOR term limits is the growth of a politicians personal power as they grow more entrenched in the establishment. That is, the longer they serve the higher they attain more powerful positions adn can possibly bring additional benefits to their home district (see Stevens, Ted). This is a self-reinforcing cycle, as additional re-elections make the politician more powerful and make it more costly for the voters to remove them. As a rational voter I may be inclined to vote for said incumbent over another candidate I like better due to the advantages of seniority.

I think the term limits would help level the seniority playing field, increasing turnover and bringing some "change" to Washington that many people seem to want but that remains elusive in substance.


I think that term limits probably are creative of corruptions, but I also believe that if a term length is short enough, politicians will be kept in line. The return on possible corruption over two years is much lower than four years. And polititians worried about re-election, esp with no term limits, shoudl be kept more honest over all their terms, not just their first.

Now, if a mayor like Bloomberg who has done so well is looking to change the law on terms, he probably can. The risk involved may be minimal, because with such a high approval rating even if he cannot pull it off, he may be able to go to congress or find some other political position with such a solid record. Ceratinly his risks are much lower than his possible return, being another, and possibleeven another term as NY mayor.

Tymothe Connaughton

Until reading this article, I've never considered a government in the absence of term limits. I have a firm belief that limits are needed in order to allow new candidates a chance at their respective position. In general, the majority of the voting population will choose to re-elect an incumbent, due to ignorance of the opposing candidate's skills. Incumbents also tend to possess the funds and support needed to control the media. Humans are instinctively resistant to change and will usually go with the name that sounds more familiar. If they see that name everyday on the television, they're more likely to vote for him/her instead of the unknown competitor on election day. Term limits assist voters in making that change while providing opportunity for new leaders and novel ideas.

There are a few exceptions to this rule however. Positions that are popularized in the media due to their overall impact on a state/nation's decisions (Senate or President) are less affected by this voter ignorance. But ask someone who voted for their district treasurer if they did so due to a name's familiarity or due to a thorough knowledge of that candidate's skills and past productivity in that position. The latter answer will probably arise less often.

While I do believe term limits are needed in the U.S. government, I also know that there will be times when they will need to be temporarily suspended. One notable occurrence was FDR's third term. The Great Depression was a time where the nation needed a powerful leader to bring it out of the crisis. And I believe this was quite obvious to the American people after watching the effect that Hoover had in preventing it. World War II was yet another endeavor that Roosevelt had to deal with during his presidency.

In times like those, suspended term limits are understandable. However, as bad as the economy seems at the moment, I doubt you could compare this recession to either of those events.


M Todd

The theory is term limits will limit experienced government. If that is the case why is our congress and senate so screwed up? Why not term limits, we have term limits on the president why not a mayor, governor and congress?

Term limits are a good idea for two reasons.

One: Representatives serve one of two terms they will be focused on doing their job not trying to keep in office and building political legacies. Today most congress and senate seats spend most of their time keeping themselves in office. This leads to corruption because lobbyist giving money to their campaigns want to keep them in their pockets.

Two: It will interject new blood, ideas, and solutions instead of the same old partisan politics which are keeping any growth from happening in this country.

I will give you an example. This country has spent billions on the war on drugs with no end in site. Most experts know that the most effective way to solve this problem is through treatment and decrimilization. But, these are politically suicide because to do the logical thing is seen as being soft on drugs and crime, so they continue to fund the same programs that yield no results. Since the people in office want to stay in office they vote for more prisons, more enforcement and harsher laws.

Another example is our current energy polices. They focus on oil, getting it, protecting it, and increasing the profits from it. For the past 35 years instead of moving to alternative fuels, renewable resources, and conservation our nation is in worse shape. Why? because the lobbyist who give to these representatives who have been in office for decades know who pays the bills.

I like Bloomburg, but given time he would be corrupted by the system if he stayed for decades. Perhaps he should run for Hillary's seat in the senate?



I agree with #7 that term limits really limit democracy, because if the people didn't want the candidate to stay that long they wouldn't vote for him or her consecutively. However I only think this applies in an executive context.

I think mayors shouldn't have term-limits and senators should. Legislatures could benefit from term limits to avoid the prisoner-dilemma like situation they create where everyone hates congress but loves their congressman in the fight over which region gets the extorted money spent on them. With congressman and senators, term-limits are more valid because that's in the interest of the nation, not just the region electing them.


Well, Bloomberg could opt a Putin solution? That works without droping term limits.

Sean Samis

term limits BY THEMSELVES will be an incentive for corruption; politicians will have no incentive to act responsibly because their time in power will be brief.

our corrupt politics is not caused by incumbency, but by the free flow of money: i.e. legalized bribery. The same crooks who accept the money have no incentive to make it illegal. Want to clean up politics? A voter driven initiative to criminalize all but the tiniest "contributions" as bribery would pretty much do the job.

with some adjustments, pols could learn to govern and campaign with less money, and that' good for everyone.


Maybe it would be good for him to go.

He could be our next treasury secretary. We will need him more there than in NYC.

Max Kaehn

I would argue for a modified version of term limits where in the year before a candidate stands for re-election, voters are asked "should this candidate be allowed to run for this office again?" The first time, it requires a simple majority. The second time, 2/3. The third time, 3/4. And so on. So you have to be really, really popular to last a long time.


Term limits are a bad idea. Politicans no longer fear prosecution, corruption charges, or even being made the butt of late-night TV jokes. The only thing politicians still fear is not being reelected, and term limits remove that.


The DISADVANTAGES of incumbency were shown in bright colors tonight with the senate approving the bail-out package.


Chicago doesn't have term limits, but then again we don't have democracy either. We have King Richard (Daley for those outside of Chicago)... but we like our king for the most part.


Keep term limits for legislators and ditch them for executives. People pay attention to executives much more than legislators and are more likely to recycle when recycling is needed. The same is true on the federal level. Reagan and Clinton probably would have gotten third terms. How would we be worse off? Bush I wasn't vastly better or worse than Reagan, and Clinton part 3 would have been a HUGE improvement over Bush II.


"Using that corollary it is advantageous to the public to have politicians who can’t run for reelection as they’re more willing to invoke right but politically risky policies."

Wait, shouldn't the "right" policies for a politician be those supported by the majority of their constituents? We do have a system of representative democracy- a fact many of these politicians seem to forget. Congressmen should be voting as their county would vote- since they are simply serving as a representative on their behalf. Unless of course you believe those who elect these politicians are woefully ignorant of the "best" course of action in which case you call into question the very viability of democracy.

Dan G

Somehow, I doubt that Congress will pass a law to enact term limits on themselves, regardless of what the American people think. Besides, if somebody is doing a good job, why force them out?

Then again, the advantages of the incumbency are at least worth mentioning in the counterpoint.


The previous post on this blog shows how not being up for reelection leads to political freedom. Using that corollary it is advantageous to the public to have politicians who can't run for reelection as they're more willing to invoke right but politically risky policies.


I cannot get over how foolish this post by Mr. Dubner reads.

The voters elected to have term limits, and expressed that will directly. Twice. Why did they do this? They were convinced that term limits would yield better results. I don't happen to agree with that, but that was their decision.

Now, with an official you like, you want them repealed or loosened? What happend to the rule of the people or the rule of law? You are talking about exceptionalism, where one mayor is worth changing the rules for. You like Bloomberg, so you don't want term limits. Or, that is the only argument you are putting forth.

The real issue is not whether you get your optimal outcome this time. It is whether the city is most likely to get the optimal outcomes in the series of electons down the road. In other words, it is not about Bloomberg or 2009.

Sean Samis

Term limits are a bad idea. They don't limit politicians, they limit voters; they limit democracy. If you don't want Bloomberg to serve a third term, vote for someone else. If someone does want Bloomberg to serve a third term they should vote for him. Term limits take away this choice. It's anti-democratic.

We have always had term limits: vote for the challenger. If you can't get enough other people to vote for the challenger, is it fair to take their choices away?

sean s.


I can understand an extended term, maybe a max of 3, but there's little sense in making it unlimited. A good mayor, is a good mayor, but when s/he stays mayor, that state misses out on a person that good be a great governor or a great senator. In fact, the country may miss out a potential great president.

Bloomberg as governor would be awesome for the state.