Elected Officials: Temporary Workers

Have you seen the movie Dave with Kevin Kline? It came out in 1993 and is worth a watch if you haven’t and another viewing if it has been awhile. The plot is a bit silly—the president has a stroke and a lookalike is brought in to substitute and hijinks ensue. The subplots are more interesting as are some of the themes: corruption in public office, the nobility of public service, and elected officials are temporary workers in temp jobs.

flagMost people—public officials and constituents alike—do not consider public office as a temp job. The kind of job a person willingly walks into with the idea of walking out before it becomes a career or before being voted out of office. But a high-profile example of this exact idea would be Nelson Mandela, the great South African president, who walked away after one term in office.

In the United States, a person elected to any federal office except the presidency may continue to hold office as long as he or she is re-elected. The president is limited to two elections to the presidency by the Twenty-Second Amendment. Despite a rash of state laws in the 1990s attempting to place term limits on federal representatives serving in the U.S. House and Senate, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1995 in the case U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thorton that states cannot impose restrictions greater than those of the U.S. Constitution on possible members of Congress. More than 23 states had passed term limits at the time.

senateThis ruling did not affect term limits for state or local public offices. The National Conference of State Legislatures tracks which states term limit what public offices. For example, the Commonwealth of Virginia allows its governors to be elected for only one four-year term. This concept of elected office being a temporary job is important for a citizen lobbyist because it puts more power in your advocacy. If you approach a candidate for office or an already elected official about an issue that is important to you and you do not get a response that is satisfactory, you have the opportunity to approach another candidate or challenger to that office to find someone who is more supportive or more responsive. It is good for both you and the elected official to be reminded that that voter support is key to an elected official getting and retaining his or her position. However, it all starts with your willingness to express your participation in the process with your vote.

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