Friday, October 17, 2008

Continuity this!

OK, I’ve put it off long enough. . . I suppose it is time for me to give up my copper on New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s little plan to abrogate override extend term limits, allowing him to run for buy another four years in office.

I probably have more than two cents to add. . . I probably should have been down at the City Council hearings on Thursday, watching the goings on in the packed, stuffy room, impatiently waiting the 10, 12, 14 hours it might have taken for them to get to my two minutes of “fame.” But, truth be told, I had to spend 20 hours fighting with Time Warner about my dead internet connection, and, truth be told again, I was afraid that if I went, I would wind up with my own set of plastic bracelets. . . .

Yes, I am that angry. (I was that angry with Time Warner, too, but I had the benefit of being able to just slam the phone down when I though I was getting out of control.)

Let me just say straight out: I hate, hate, hate term limits. I believe that they are undemocratic. I believe they deny we the people the opportunity to fully exercise our franchise. In other words, I believe we already have term limits—they’re called elections.

Yes, we have a problem of entrenched incumbents, we do, but they are entrenched because incumbency can too easily become an entrée to influence peddling. It gives politicians easy access to powerful, moneyed interests who are all too happy to spread the wealth (sorry, Johnny Mac) in exchange for tax breaks, zoning changes, pay-to-play contracts, and a myriad of other secret-handshake and/or look-the-other-way deals.

But the way to end all this numismatic noblesse oblige is not to force out the good with the bad. Incumbency in-and-of itself is not a bad thing. There is a lot to be said for a professional government, one with institutional memory, one that knows how to grab the reigns of power, build coalitions, plumb the obscure depths of the law, and actually get things done on behalf of the electorate. And I believe that there are incumbents who behave in just that manner. . . and many who might even do more for their constituents if it weren’t for the incessant necessity of raising money for the next election.

Unless, of course, you are so disgustingly rich that you don’t have to work on that level—but more on that later. . . .

Term limits are a blunt instrument (dare I say “a hatchet?”); a quick fix that isn’t really a fix at all. And, perhaps worse, they are cynical. Inherent in the term limits equation is the assumption that all politicians are the same, and that this same is something just this side of pond scum. If I believed that, I would probably never vote again. I have a feeling that for some in the ruling class, it would be just fine if my cohort and I went to just such an unhappy place. “Democracy” is so much more manageable when most of us turn off, tune out, and stay home.

Instead of encouraging such cynicism, I’d rather we discourage the cronyism. Full public financing of political campaigns—coupled with laws and initiatives that protect, ease, and encourage near universal participation of those eligible to vote—would go a long way toward solving both the problem of incumbent-coddling influence peddling and the problem of the supremely wealthy simply buying their way in.

So, if term limits disappeared tomorrow, and we could start working on public financing and universal participation, well, that would very much calm my jangled nerves.

So, yeah, I hate term limits. . . but, you know what? I think I hate Mike Bloomberg—and, now, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn—even more.

Don’t get me wrong, if those two—the tweedle deaf and tweedle dumb of this current battle—were actually proposing to do away with term limits altogether, and to do it by putting it to a popular vote (because the term limits were imposed by popular vote), I would probably hold my nose and salute. (What kind of salute? Well, uh, let’s move on. . .) If Mayor Mike would spend half as much as he did to get elected (or reelected—when he spent even more) to campaign for the repeal of term limits rather than glad handing, arm twisting, and featherbedding his way to a city council majority, I bet he could get the result he wanted.

(The fact of the matter is, we only really have term limits because another billionaire, Republican and failed gubernatorial candidate Ronald Lauder (with some help from conservative billionaire and failed gubernatorial candidate Tom Golisano), flooded the airways and mailboxes of New York with pro-term limit propaganda. They outspent the anti-term limits groups by such a factor as to render them invisible. It was not a fair fight; it was not—thanks to the corrupting influence of money—an honest plebiscite. Ironic, no?)

But Bloomberg—previously a staunch defender of a two-term limit—has not done that. He actually said he thought that a popular vote would be “distracting” and “messy.” Democracy is a bitch (when you’re rich). The mayor has instead chosen to pursue the cleaner (cheaper?) route: a mere 26 members of the City Council.

Step one toward corralling the 26: include them in on the deal.

Oh, and I should probably mention what that deal is.

What it is not is an abolition of term limits. No. It is simply an extension of term limits. A one-term extension. Oh, and, not forever, either. Nope. It is a one time, one term extension.

Because that’s the deal that Bloomberg had to cut with Ron Lauder to keep him—and his money—on the sidelines.

Is this all feeling creepy enough for you yet? Wait, there’s more.

With much of the City Council also about to be term limited out of office, they have a dog in the fight, too—a lap dog.

It’s another of the problems with term limits. By the time you make a name for yourself in city politics, by the time you build connections or coalitions, by the time you have enough alliances to, say, get elected Speaker of the council, it’s the legally mandated time to leave. If you want to continue in city politics, you have to change jobs. But there are only so many jobs to go around—Mayor, Borough President, maybe Comptroller. That’s not really enough to give everybody a chance to achieve “greatness,” or even, just maybe, build a couple of new libraries or push for a change in the tax laws.

Christine Quinn, for instance, has been running for mayor pretty much from the day she was elected Speaker. She has to—she’s in her last term. Several other council members also would like to sow a few more seeds; part of the deal that Quinn struck to get the Speaker’s gavel was to agree to take up term extensions.

Quinn commissioned a private poll. The numbers didn’t look good; it would reflect badly on Quinn if she pushed it. So, she let the issue of an extension quietly drop.

This time around, Speaker Quinn waited ten days from the mayor’s official announcement before she publicly decided to side with Bloomberg. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Quinn, who had fought the Mayor on several issues in her pre-Speaker days, has been thisclose to Millionaire Mike for the last three years.

But that’s not really why you shouldn’t be surprised. I have a feeling Quinn spent those ten days doing some other polling. Already well behind US Representative Anthony Weiner in fundraising, Quinn might have seen that she would lose not only to Weiner, but also to City Comptroller William Thompson, if a Democratic Mayoral primary were held today.

Realizing that she had nowhere to go but nowhere, Quinn took a meeting (or two) with Bloomberg, and a deal was cut. I have no idea what that deal might look like—OK, I have some idea—but pretty much only Chris and Mike are pretending there is no Quinn pro quo.

So, we have Mayor Bloomberg, a man who a few years back threatened to veto a term limit extension, and Speaker Quinn, a woman who pretended to think this over, now united in extending term limits for themselves, for just this once. . . . And get this, this is what really has me. . . they are doing it for us.

It’s the economic crisis, you see—a cataclysmic event so distractingly perfect if it weren’t real, they’d have to create it. (Wait a minute there. . . oh, never mind.)

Apparently, in times this desperate, this scary—this undercapitalized—there is only one billionaire that can save us. Only one, one, one!

Absurd, ridiculous, insulting even—I mean, really fucking insulting—but that’s not the worst of it. Both Bloomberg and Quinn have said that in these troubled times we need a “continuity of government.”

Continuity of government. Now, I know, its taken me a long time to get here, but it is the use of this term that would have had me screaming and waving my finger at council members should I have been crazy enough to head downtown. That term, continuity of government, is what we in democracies talk about when we talk about the transition from one elected officeholder to another. Continuity of government refers to the system, not to the people. It refers to the rule of law—and how it does not change at the mere whim of the current executive—because (and, beware, I am going to go all caps on you) WE HAVE A GOVERNMENT OF LAWS; NOT A GOVERNMENT OF MEN!

To use “continuity of government” to mean the polar opposite is positively (negatively) Orwellian. Worse, it is. . . well, like with the salute, I won’t go there. . . .

Let’s just say that it is not leadership through a crisis. And it is certainly not what those of us who truly, passionately, and objectively hate term limits advocate for: democracy.

No, instead, it is part and parcel of the problem that gave us this economic crisis. It is plutocracy—the rule of a society by its wealthiest members. And it is this continuation of such rule that Billionaire Michael Bloomberg is trying to ram down the throats of New Yorkers under the war-equals-peace, poverty-equals-wealth twisting of the term, the concept, the ideal of continuity of government.

Well, Michael—and Christine—continuity this!

[Insert the gesture of your choice]

(cross-posted on The Seminal and Daily Kos)

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