Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Vermont’s Two-Year Term Is Not the Problem

Vermont’s political establishment has often advocated extending the terms of office for some or all statewide offices from two to four years. Today, that group includes Tim Ashe, Senator from Chittenden County and Senate president pro tempore.

1983 Graphic, Vermont Council for Democracy
Ashe, a close political ally of Bernie Sanders who is proposing four constititutional amendments, argues that Vermont's governor should have a four-year term. More would be accomplished, he suggests, if governors did not have to seek re-election so often. This is not a new idea. The surprise is that it is coming this time from a Progressive, albeit one of several who also runs as a Democrat.

In the late 1950s a Commission to Study State Government — known as the “Little Hoover Commission” for its similarity to a federal effort in the 1940s led by the former Republican president — concluded that forcing candidates to campaign for re-election so often was a waste of money and detrimental to the state’s welfare. 

The necessary constitutional amendment failed in the legislature. But the idea was brought back repeatedly over the next decades. In 1974, at the height of the Watergate scandal, it was voted down on Town Meeting Day.

In his 1983 inaugural address, Governor Richard Snelling nevertheless recommended four-year terms for the governor and lieutenant governor “as a team.” His rationale was that the “structure and complexity of our society and the value of experienced administrative leadership” had increased. Leaders of both the Republican and Democratic Party supported the proposal, citing the increased expense of campaigns and the need for more continuity in program implementation.

At first passage seemed assured. But criticism surfaced at a public hearing. Political Scientist Frank Bryan argued that voting for governor every two years tends to “keep the chief executive’s attention on campaign promises made” and serves as a way of make “mid-course corrections.” A four year term, he said, would strengthen the executive branch without helping the legislature to balance that power.

James Guest, Gov. Madeleine Kunin’s Secretary of Development at the time and soon to be elected Secretary of State, was vocally opposed to the change. In response to the argument that running every two years is inconvenient, he replied at the hearing, “That’s the way it’s supposed to be. No one ever said political life was convenient or easy.”

Guest also noted that “it’s a safe bet that many governors in the middle of a four-year term may well run for Congress or the U.S. Senate. The incentive may even be greater because they’ve got a safe job to go back to if they lose...”

He concluded: “No one has shown me that Massachusetts or New York or California or Alaska or any other state has a more efficient, more representative government because they’ve got four-term terms. I’ll take Vermont over any of them.”

When it was finally brought to a vote, the four-term term failed again. But several months later the Democrats took control of the Vermont Senate and Madeleine Kunin became governor.  And she made a Constitutional Amendment to establish four-year terms for statewide officials a priority. 

Supporters of the idea, which was eventually abandoned, included former office-holders and people expressing concern about the increasing expense of campaigns. On the other hand, The Burlington Free Press had joined the opposition. “Should voters be dissatisfied with the performance of a governor,” the paper argued in an editorial, “they would have the opportunity to reject the chief executive after he (sic) has been in office for two years. Election to a four-year term would mean that the public would be forced to tolerate inadequate performance for a longer period.”

The editorial finished with an adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But that didn’t stop politicians from continuing to bring up the idea.

Increasing terms of statewide office would undoubtedly be one of the most significant changes in the structure of Vermont government in more than a century. When proposed in 1960, the amendment was eventually withdrawn by its own sponsor, Edward Janeway. When brought back in the 1970s, it was voted down, largely because people were suspicious of increased executive power at the time. 

A look at Vermont’s constitutional history suggests that a change of similar magnitude has been made only twice. In 1836, after several years with an Anti-Mason governor, the state’s Council of Censors successfully called for a move from a unicameral to a bicameral legislature. There was a good deal of dissatisfaction with the House of Representatives. 

According to historians Andrew and Edith Nuquist, “the bankers of the state seem to have swung behind the movement (to create the Senate) in the expectation that two chambers would be easier to control than a single one.” At this point, all officials were elected annually.

The next major shift came in 1870, when terms of office were extended to two years and the constitutional amendment process itself was changed. The idea was that the legislature, rather than a Constitutional Convention, would henceforth initiate change — but only once every ten years. That “time lock” provision was later shortened to five-year intervals, but it remained a deterrent to rapid changes in the structure and process of governance.

Almost every time that the opportunity to make amendments is open, someone suggests extending terms of office, for governor or all statewide officials. Usually, at least one of the arguments is that it takes more than two years to put programs in place. Meanwhile, opponents have suggested that two-year terms make it easier to dispatch those officials whose policies or performance do not please the electorate. 

As for “putting programs in place,” Secretary of State Guest responded in the 1980s, “The fact that that governor has to run every two years doesn’t mean he (sic) has to solve everything in two years. And the voters aren’t expecting it. Rather, when they assess performance in the biennial elections voters are looking to see if they agree with the direction the governor is taking us.”

Vermont has been governed on the basis of two-year terms for almost 150 years. For many decades most governors, and many legislators, served only a single term. Restricting governors was the “mountain rule,” the informal power-sharing between eastern and western Vermont wings of the Republican Party. In addition, legislators were usually not career politicians or professionals who sought to hold public office indefinitely.

Times have clearly changed. Once in office, few elected officials are eager to surrender their status. Politics has become a career, and the professional pol seeks to “build a base” while establishing influence over specific parts of the local or state bureaucracy. Frequent elections impose an informal constraint, even though the public is usually predisposed to re-elect incumbents unless their records are seriously marred.

In other words, longer terms are more “efficient” for politicians. They bring more stability to their exercise of power. In addition, they serve some needs of the state’s bureaucracy, which generally prefers to develop long-term relations with politicians and the administrators they appoint.

On the other hand, four-year terms also promote generally longer tenure in office. Even with two-year terms, Vermont governors and others now serve at least four years, and since the 1960s many statewide officials have remained in office far longer — often without much campaign expense or serious competition.

In most states with longer terms being a lawmaker has become a full-time job. As political professionals, they also need higher salaries and more operational support. As states extend terms of office, a subsequent step is often longer legislative sessions.

In the past, supporters of longer terms have cited the expense and time consumed by frequent electoral campaigns as a central argument. But the impact could be the reverse of their stated intention. Longer terms increase the stakes of running, thus extending the time politicians spend campaigning and raising money. Campaign war chests are likely to get even bigger.

So, is something wrong with the electoral process? Clearly. But are campaigns in Vermont too long or costly? That’s subjective. But even if they are, the solution is not necessarily to eliminate half of the elections. Instead, the process can be reformed in many other ways, while the decision on whether to retain a governor after considering her or his performance for two years can remain with the voters — with no ill effects.

As the latest debate proceeds, we will likely hear appeals to “keep up” with surrounding states, to modernize and “streamline” the process. And along the way Vermont’s short term, high participation approach to politics may be called a bit “antiquated,” even by some on the left.

But let’s keep things in perspective. Short terms of office, one aspect of Vermont’s open and resilient democratic approach, are also an important check on the growth of centralized, unresponsive power. And that’s a problem which which we should all be concerned.