Start small with S.C. term limits

The South CarolinaGeneral Assembly should consider term limits. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith).

South Carolina legislators who support term limits for Congress have filed resolutions with the avowed aim of a constitutional convention that would take up the issue. Better that those legislators first look closer to home for term limits in the General Assembly.

Sure, it’s hard to get legislators to support such a restriction on their own ability to remain in office. But even if legislators don’t really support applying term limits to themselves, they should at least be willing to give the people of South Carolina a chance to consider the matter.

That could be done by a statewide referendum. And if legislators aren’t willing to advance that idea directly they could let their constituents do so by giving them the right of initiative petition.

That would allow South Carolina voters to circulate a petition on policy issues, such as legislative term limits, in an effort to put a binding referendum on the ballot. The process of initiative petition is allowed in about half of the states.

It’s no coincidence that in many of those states, the voters have forced the term-limits issue on their own.

The U.S. Supreme Court determined in 1995 that populist efforts endorsed in 23 states to limit the terms of their state’s congressmen were not constitutionally valid. That’s why term limits supporters have called for a constitutional conventional to force that issue on Congress.

The hazard of a constitutional convention is that it wouldn’t be limited solely to changing the Constitution on congressional term limits.

In contrast, binding statewide referendums can be used to limit the terms of state legislators.

There’s a lot to be said for term limits as a reform measure against the power of incumbency achieved through gerrymandered districts and big campaign war chests. Term limits encourage “average” citizens to seek office.

The legislative term limits issue is worth a public debate. And that can be achieved easily by granting the voters of South Carolina the right to call for such referenda.

Currently, the voters have to depend wholly on legislators to make statewide policy changes. Allowing registered voters to take matters into their own hands could overcome the legislative self-interest inherent in issues such as limiting legislative terms.