by Nathan Empsall, Fri Dec 04, 2009 at 12:20:20 PM EST
I am not a proponent of term limits. As they say, I've got to figure that the best term limit is the ballot box, and campaign finance reform would be a better solution to the problem of incumbency than term limits. If you've got a good leader in office, there's no reason to turn her out - even if all her initial campaign ideas have run out, there's always room for management and crisis skills.
But every rule has its exception, and "Texas Monthly" political writer Paul Burka has got me convinced that Texas is the exception to the anti-term limit view. Robert Draper's much bally-hooed article in this weekend's New York Times Magazine has brought no small amount of attention to Texas Governor Rick Perry and his upcoming Republican primary with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson. The article is well worth the read, but I was even more taken with Burka's most recent editorial in which he argues that, given the nature of the Texas Constitution, the only way to keep the Governor of Texas from running the state like a monarch is to cap the position at two four-year terms.
Legally speaking, the Governor of Texas is not a very strong position. The Governor can really only do two things: veto bills, and appoint the 4,000 members of the state's various boards and commissions. It is those boards, along with the state legislature (which is run by the Lt. Gov.), that do the real governing. Perry, however, has gained extra-legal power at the state level the same way his predecessor didn't do in Austin but did do at the national level: by taking it. Better to beg forgiveness later, the old cliché goes, then to ask permission first.
Most board members serve six-year terms. Perry, at nine years, is the longest serving Governor in Texas, and by now has appointed every single board member in the entire state. He demands extreme loyalty from his appointees and is not above LBJ-like bullying tactics if he doesn't get it. Burka examines those abuses of power:
His long tenure in office, now nearing the end of a record-setting nine years, has enabled him to establish what amounts to a cabinet style of government, in which he has the ability to direct state agencies. He has appointed every member of every state board and commission and makes it clear that he expects them to follow his lead. He has used executive orders to instruct high-ranking officials to do his bidding, as when he ordered the Health and Human Services commissioner to institute a program to vaccinate girls against the virus that causes cervical cancer before they entered the sixth grade. Another Perry order directed environmental officials to fast-track the permitting of coal-fired power plants. Normally the establishment of state policy is the province of the Legislature, but Perry does not observe the traditional boundaries...
His governorship has broken new ground in enhancing executive power. He expects his appointees to carry out his will. And if they don't? After Mark Griffin, a former Lubbock school board president whom Perry appointed to the Texas Tech University System Board of Regents in 2005, spoke favorably of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Perry's gubernatorial rival, earlier this year, he heard from Brian Newby, a former chief of staff for Perry. According to an account in the Austin American-Statesman, Newby told Griffin that the governor "expects loyalty out of his appointees and if you can't be loyal, it's probably not best to be on the team." Loyalty is one thing; fealty is another. The regents, not the governor, have the lawful responsibility of running their universities, but Griffin chose to resign.
Burka's solution? Term limiting future Texas Governors. And for once, I am inclined to agree.
There is a remedy for this situation: term limits for Texas governors. I offer it reluctantly. Term limits have not worked well at the local level in Texas, because the time that a public official is allowed to serve is often too short. Mayors and council members hardly have time to figure out what is going on before they become lame ducks. But governor is different. Eight years is a long time. No one complains that United States presidents are limited to eight years in office.
My advocacy of term limits is not personal. If implemented, they should not apply to Perry but should take effect after he has chosen to conclude his remarkable career. Perry himself is not the issue. It's the centralization of power that he has achieved. The ability for a governor to have complete control of every state agency--and what he might do with that power (the opportunity to build a political machine, the temptation to enrich one's friends, among more-benign possibilities)--ought to be a cause for concern.
In related news, you may have heard that Texas Democrats now have their dream candidate for Governor in Houston Mayor Bill White, who did an amazing job in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I just got back from Thanksgiving in Austin, and no one I talked to thought White had a chance, especially in what may be shaping up to be a Republican year nation-wide. Against Hutchinson, they're absolutely correct, but just four years after Perry won re-election with less than 40% of the vote, I don't care how bad the political tide gets for Democrats, you can't tell me a Perry-White race wouldn't be worth watching.