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Nick Tomboulides on the Campbell Conversations

Nick Tomboulides
Nick Tomboulides

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher:  Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is Nick Tomboulides. He's the executive director of U.S. Term Limits, a nonprofit organization dedicated to instituting term limits and legislatures at all levels of government, including Congress. Nick's been leading the organization since 2013. And prior to that, he has experience as a social media strategist and a campus organizer. Nick, welcome to the program.

Nick Tomboulides: Grant, glad to be with you. Thanks for having me on.

GR: It's great to have you. So let's just start with some basic background information on your organization. When was U.S. Term Limits founded? Who, by and large, funds it, et cetera?

NT: So we were founded in 1992, which was really the start of the modern term limits movement. We've always been founded then and now, sorry, we've always been funded then and now by angels and activists. So we've got a few really big guys who write really big checks. And we also have like a small dollar donor network of people who believe in the issue, send in five or ten dollars here or there. And U.S. Term Limits really got on the map in the early 1990’s when we participated in initiative campaigns in 23 states to put term limits on members of Congress. So we assisted in these ballot drives, it went on the ballot, I think it passed with an average vote of around 70%, polling has actually improved since then, but those laws were challenged. One of them, for example, was the law here in Florida, we have a measure in our state constitution which says that all members of the Florida congressional delegation shall have term limits. There were 22 other states that did the same thing by 1995. It was challenged in court, it was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and in the 1995 split decision U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that term limits for Congress may not be enacted by a state law. So no state statutes, no state constitutional amendments, it has to be an amendment to the US Constitution because that's how the qualifications for Congress members are spelled out. So, since that time what we've done has been a hodgepodge of, of course building support for an amendment to term limit Congress, but also participating in term limits campaigns all over the map ranging from local offices to state offices. Just last year we participated in a campaign to term limit the legislature of North Dakota. So that became the 16th state with legislative term limits. And we're pretty much active wherever you can find the term limits law.

GR: Right. And you mentioned you have a couple of big donors. Just give me some examples of who those folks are.

NT: Well, I do like to be respectful of donors’ privacy, but one that's completely out there in the open is Howard Rich, who's the chairman of U.S. Term Limits, been involved in the effort since inception. And Howie is very well known, you can look him up on Wikipedia, he's a true believer. He's someone who's given a lot of his personal time and money to this effort because it's something that he genuinely believes in.

GR: Okay, great. Well, I know that you could probably talk for the entire rest of the program about the question I'm about to ask you, but give me the brief version if possible.

NT: Sure.

GR: What's your organization's most important set of arguments in favor of term limits?

NT: So I think there are so many compelling arguments for term limits, but I think at its core, term limits is an election reform. Term limits recognizes that there is a tremendous disparity in power and an advantage at the ballot box for incumbents. We see that 95% of incumbents are routinely reelected, whether it be Congress, your state legislature or your city council, that tends to be how it goes. And yet these politicians also have a very low approval rating. And so something is clearly wrong. And when you dig a little bit deeper, you see that special interests and PACs are cutting checks to incumbents at about a ten to one clip versus how much money they give to challengers. So, incumbents have so many advantages. They have the built in name recognition. Every initiative that they announces in the paper every other day, you know, they can spend basically taxpayer money to campaign for reelection. I just got a mail piece last week, it's a beautiful color four page mail piece for my congressman about all the amazing initiatives that he's working on. And then at the very bottom, it says, you know, this was funded by the by the U.S. Congress, by the taxpayers. So they have the franking privilege and of course, they have that insurmountable financial advantage that makes it incredibly difficult for outsiders to compete. I think it was the Center for Responsive Politics said that the cost of unseating a U.S. House incumbent was $2.5 million. You know, most ordinary Americans just don't have that sitting around, nor do they have access to these elite fundraising streams and in Washington, D.C., in the centers of power. So there's effectively a barrier to entry built around our government. You cannot dislodge these incumbents. It's like pulling a sword from a stone. And I think the way that you level the playing field is with term limits, because with the term limit, you are guaranteed an open seat election at a regular interval. You know the barriers will be brought down, it's far easier to win an open seat election than it is to dislodge an incumbent. But when you have open seats, you're going to see people from a more diverse array of backgrounds running for office. You're going to see people who probably have never contemplated becoming career politicians, because now that they know they can just serve for a short amount of time, make an impact, and then return home to live under the laws that they've made. They'd be more incentivized to run because under the current system, you run for office and you have to be a backbencher for 20 or 30 years buried in the seniority system under Nancy Pelosi or Mitch McConnell or whomever. So I think it would really open up the system to a whole host of new faces, new voices, new ideas. You know, Harry Truman once said that term limits are a remedy for old seniority and senility, two terrible legislative diseases. I think generally we agree with that.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with the executive director of U.S. Term Limits, Nick Tomboulides. So there are some strong counterarguments against term limits and I wanted to get your reactions to a couple of them. First, they certainly haven't looked like a great success in California, at least when we looked at when they were first implemented and comparing the operations of the legislature after term limits to the way it worked before. And then more broadly, in that vein, there's a concern that any sort of term limit provision that has a real bite to it is going to largely remove the legislators who provide the institutional and policy memory that are needed to craft good legislation. They're the ones that get term-limited out. And their absence is largely filled by lobbyists and that's one of the things that happened in California. So that's the first sort of counter argument. The second one that I'm familiar with is that you mentioned that there is this - going to be this different type of person that wants to come in because they don't have to wait for 20 years being a backbencher. On the other hand, there is an argument that term limits may cause many newer legislators to become even more career conscious than they would have been before, and to think about their time in the legislature simply as a stepping stone to something else, because they know right off the bat they can't stay there very long. So in some ways there's an argument that it actually makes the problems of political ambition worse rather than better. How do you respond to those counter arguments against term limits?

NT: Sure. Well, I guess we can start with the California example, you know, I'm troubled by much of the political science literature on term limits, because much of it tends to be surveys of the actual politicians and lobbyists and staffers who are affected by term limits in these states. And so I think there's a huge conflict of interest in soliciting their opinions because they don't want to lose power. I liken it to, you know, if we were going to do a study on whether prison bars were effective and we were only asking the inmates, right? They have a conflict of interest when it comes to term limits. In terms of the empirical data we see that states with term limits, on average, have a higher ranking of fiscal health. If you look at the Mercatus rankings, which I think were published for four straight years, then they stopped it, but there are other groups that do the same thing. Higher ranking of fiscal health, we see that term limits have made legislatures more diverse and more reflective of the people at large. There was a paper by Professor Samantha Pettey at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, which found that job term limits at the state legislative level led to a 33% increase in the emergence of female candidates for office. Because the reason women are underrepresented in politics is, it's not because the electorate is biased, it's because we don't have enough women who run. Because when women run, they win. And this paper showed that women actually, as opposed to men, have less of a desire to be career politicians. And in a term-limited system, you really level the playing field if you can increase those numbers, get some parity. I believe Nevada recently became the first state to have a majority female, it was either a majority female chamber or a majority female legislature, and that is, of course, a term limits state. So I think the data is very strong in that regard. In terms of institutional knowledge, what I'm seeing and I think what a lot of people who support term limits see, is that members, incumbents are not applying their institutional knowledge to the issues at hand, as opposed to actually reading the thousand page bills that are presented to them. They are spending more time raising money for their next reelection. They're spending more time dialing for dollars and there was one report that said the average incumbent spends four or five hours a day in a call center just begging donors for money for their next reelection campaign. I don't really think that's conducive to good public policy, nor do I think relying on lobbyists for so much information and instruction is conducive to good public policy. So I think experience is important, knowledge is important, but I would prefer real world experience. I would prefer a system in which physicians, more physicians feel empowered to run for office and tackle health care issues as opposed to career politicians. So I would prefer a system where more teachers feel empowered to run for office and tackle education issues as opposed to career politicians. So I don't discount the value of experience, I just think real world experience that term limits delivers is the most important kind. And may I address the point about lobbyists as well?

GR: Absolutely. Yeah. Go ahead, quickly, yeah.

NT: So, yes, one of the most common myths that circulates in any state capital or even Washington, D.C., is that lobbyists favor term limits because they are just waiting for this brain drain so that they can fill up all this, take advantage of all the novice new legislators and tell them what to do. What we find is that the opposite is actually true. That what happens is that as you spend more time in office, your ties to lobbyists deepen your reliance on your constituents’ lessons and term limits may be the only way to, in fact, sever those ties. I study the campaign finance records of term limits campaigns that we run all over the country. And what I find is that lobbyists always contribute their dollars to whichever side is trying to prevent, weaken or abolish term limits altogether. If lobbyists stood to benefit from term limits, they'd be coming into my office and trying to help me, hasn't happened once. They're always on the opposite side of it, so I just don't think that holds water. There was a quote from Jack Abramoff, the infamous mega lobbyist who may be back in jail, I'm not sure what his legal status is now, but he said, a politician who stays in office for life is worth his weight in gold to lobbyists, because they don't lobbyists don't like to repurchase politicians over and over again, and they don't want to have to learn a new rolodex. They prefer to go back to their old standbys, their connections that they've made for decades and decades. And term limits really is a way of severing those ties. And I feel like it also jams the revolving door because people who leave the legislature to go try to lobby, if you're constantly bringing in a new crop of legislators, then they won't know the new people. So their experience, their relationships won't be as valuable. There was a paper from Duke University, it was Jordi Blanes Vidal, who found that when someone leaves a Washington office to become a lobbyist on K Street and then their former boss retires, such as a senator they worked under retires, their income as a lobbyist drops precipitously because they can't trade off that relationship anymore. So I think term limits would definitely help improve the situation with lobbyists. It would sever the ties they have with incumbents and it would put a jam in the revolving door.

GR: It's interesting what you found when you followed the money. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Nick Tomboulides. He's the executive director of U.S. Term Limits, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to instituting term limits at all levels of government. So, let's just think about the dysfunctions in Congress for a second. And I think you were very effective in talking about some of the advantages that you saw and answering the criticisms that I put forward. But one of the big dysfunctions in Congress ,and just as an aside, maybe we can get to this later, it's not clear to me how term limits are going to make elections cheaper. So I don't know how you're going to necessarily cut into that 4 hours a day of calling time, at least for the three or four terms that a limited term member is going to pursue. But we can get into that later. But one of the big dysfunctions for Congress, though, obviously has to do with political polarization. The two parties pulling apart, not cooperating, not a lot of dialog between them, not a lot of problem solving and a lot of name calling. And it's hard for me to imagine exactly how turnover would help with that particular problem if it is a party based problem, because we also see polarization among the electorate. You know, voters are yelling at each other and calling each other names. It's not just members of Congress. And we could even also look at some data, which suggests that some of the polarization in Congress is even starker among the newly elected members because they come in all gung-ho and fired up to push that agenda that they're part of by being an active member of the party. So how do you see term limits helping polarization? How's it going to get at that problem?

NT: So I think polarization has multiple causes, one of which of course is the mainstream media is constantly driving people into those hyper-partisan corners of ideology. And I think, to an extent, that's unavoidable. Because fear sells when it comes to mainstream media, fear of the other side, fear of compromise. So I think some of that is unavoidable. But in terms of term limits, what we're looking to do is dramatically transform the culture of Washington, D.C. We're looking to lower the stakes of holding elected office. And it's my opinion and the opinion of those who agree with us, that if you go into it knowing that this is a short term commitment, knowing that it is not possible for you to build an empire in this seat because you will be ejected in six years or maybe sooner, because an incumbent who has spent less time in Washington is easier to unseat. So you would also see more competitive elections against incumbents. But if you have that view of elected office, that you're viewing it more as public service rather than a career, I think you'd be more inclined to compromise and work with the other side on solutions that benefit everyone in our country. I think term limits is actually a fantastic example of this, Grant. We have 82% support for term limits among Republicans, Democrats, Independents, non-party affiliated. It's the ultimate bipartisan issue. It's the issue that could bring everyone together and yet the senior career leadership in Congress doesn't touch it with a ten foot pole because there is no partisan incentive to do so and because it cuts against their self-interest. Whereas when I look at the members of Congress who actually support this reform, who’re willing to kind of work across the aisle and do this, it tends to be the newer and younger members. So, I think by transforming the culture of Washington, D.C., changing it from a permanent sinecure that people can hold on to for decades, changing it from that to a temporary assignment, a duty to do what's right for your country, I think we'd see less partisanship.

GR: Now, you talked about, when you were talking about the origins of your organization going back to the early 90’s, one of the things that was a big moment for term limits at the state level was that time period. And you saw during the early 90’s about 20 states enacting term limits for their state legislatures.

NT: Right.

GR: Most of that happened through referendums and initiatives and a few instances the legislatures themselves suggested it, but probably because they could see it coming. So the enthusiasm for that at the state level seems to have cooled a lot since then. We haven't seen a whole lot and you mentioned Nevada being a recent win for you at the state level. Why do you think that kind of ran its course in the early 90’s and then, except for these individual exceptions, you haven't seen a whole lot of action at the state level on this?

NT: Very simple answer. It's because we ran out of states with an open and accessible initiative process where citizens could put it on the ballot themselves and it would stick permanently. You're in New York. I'm originally from Connecticut. If I'm not mistaken, these are states where in order to get anything done, you literally need the chickens to vote for Colonel Sanders.

GR: (laughter)

NT: You need, in Connecticut the legislature has to vote for something twice before it can get on the ballot. It's not like Florida or California, where you can circulate clipboards and petitions. And that is, I can't tell you how much of a critical difference that is because term limits cut so deeply against the self-interest of the elected officials. They're just never going to put it on the ballot themselves. I think there was one commentator at the Cato Institute who said it would be like getting demons to shut down the gates of hell. Like it's just, it's not practical for politicians to term limit themselves without immense external pressure, which is very, very difficult to create. So it wasn't so much that enthusiast as a waned as we no longer have a practical, effective process in most states to get it done. But that process does still exist in some areas like North Dakota, you saw, for example, still has an open initiative process, got it on the ballot last year, passed it.

GR: Oh, that was the one I'm sorry, I switched out North Dakota with Nevada. Yeah. And that's a yeah, perfectly plausible, and you're absolutely right, an understatement to say it would be difficult to imagine this happening in New York.

NT: There are also some states that only have a statutory initiative like Utah for example, that was one of the states where we term-limited the legislature. What happened the next day? The legislature turned around and repealed their own term limits because it was only a statute. So if you really want to do it right, you have to constitutionalize it. And there are very few venues where you can still do that.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is U.S. Term Limits Executive Director Nick Tomboulides. So let me ask you this question, you kind of already answered what you're up to now with the emphasis on trying to get a constitutional amendment to have this be successful for members of Congress, so we won't get into that. But I did want to ask, it does seem to be the case, as you point out a couple of times now, that term limits for Congress enjoys very broad support. Nonetheless, term limits as an issue to press seems to be more associated with conservatives than liberals. You can correct me if I'm wrong on that, but that's my impression. And I'm not trying to suggest that your organization is especially conservative, but I'm just saying that is what the association generally is. Why is that the case, do you think?

NT: So it's not something that's really reflected at all in the polling. If you look at most polls, I think it's like 82% with Republicans and then Democrats are a couple of points behind. In some polls Democrats are ahead of Republicans. So we don't see that reflected really at all among the general public. But you're right that there is a difference in how elected officials tend to approach this issue. And I think it goes back to the Contract with America and Newt Gingrich. I think in the early 1990’s, term limits became so closely associated with the Republican Party because it was in the Contract with America that left a very sour taste in many Democrat’s mouths. And they still remember that, they still have the battle scars from back in those days. And so they're a little bit apprehensive about touching it, but it truly is a nonpartisan issue. There's something in it for everybody. Democrats favor campaign finance reform. Getting back to what you said earlier, making it easier and cheaper to win an election because the seat is open is effectively a form of campaign finance reform. And that's data, by the way, that we have from Center for Responsive Politics, shows that the average person who wins an open seat race spends way, way less than someone who has to defeat an incumbent.

GR: Yeah, absolutely. And we've seen that up here in this area of New York for sure. So, we've only got a couple of minutes left, but I did want to fit this in. Your organization has been in the news up here lately for its pressuring of Claudia Tenney, who is a member of Congress from upstate New York. I think by all accounts, very conservative, obviously and obviously a Republican. She represents New York's 24th district. She was emphasizing term limits and now doesn't seem to like them so much anymore. So what's the problem with Claudia Tenney? Is it just she's turned against term limits? What's going on in a minute or less?

NT: So in a minute or less, wow. Well, there were nine members of the New York congressional delegation who signed the U.S. term limits pledge for a specific constitutional amendment. They said, when I get to Congress, I'll support an amendment for three House terms, two Senate terms and no longer a limit. Only one of those nine is currently being attacked by anybody, and that's Claudia Tenney, because she's the only one of the nine who broke her word. She signed the pledge when she needed the votes, when she wanted to capitalize on it. And now that she's safely protected as a D.C. incumbent, she wants nothing to do with it anymore. And she's actually filed a term limits bill for double the number of terms. She's filed a bill that would let people spend 24 years in Washington D.C. and she has she's lashed out at our organization. She's lashed out at other PACs. But I think when you make a promise to the voters, you have an obligation. You have a duty to keep it. Honesty is the best policy.

GR: And we have another member of Congress that is in a district that is centered around Syracuse, Brandon Williams he’s (a) freshman this year. Replaced John Katko, both of them are Republicans. How does Brandon Williams rank with your group so far?

NT: I believe he is a pledged signer, but I’m sorry I don't have that information off the top of my head. I believe he signed the pledge and co-sponsored House Joint Resolution 11. So I think he's doing the right thing by us. But Claudia Tenney, very different story. She made a commitment to the voters and she betrayed them and broke her word.

GR: Well, we'll have to leave it there. That was Nick Tomboulides and again, his organization is U.S. Term Limits. It's easy to find on the web if you have an interest in getting more involved. Nick, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. There's a really interesting set of conversations and argument back and forth. I really learned a lot in this. Thank you.

NT: I really enjoyed it. Grant. It's always fun to discuss term limits with a political scientist because you guys have your finger on the pulse of this probably better than anybody. So I really enjoyed it and I would love to come back and do it again.

GR: All right, great. You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.