Monday, June 14, 2010

Terms of Endearment?

Council Speaker Chris Quinn has waded right into the term limits debate as the Charter Commission mulls over what to do with the controversial question. As the WSJ reports: “Any attempt to punish the council for using its legislative powers and approving an unpopular measure introduced by the mayor would set a very dangerous and chilling precedent," Ms. Quinn told the Charter Revision Commission in testimony Thursday night. "Such an action would damage our system of representative democracy."

Robert Kennedy was once asked about a certain policy question, whether he was supporting the measure because it was good politics-i.e. good for his own interests-or because it was in the public interest. He supposedly replied, “It’s always nice when the two of these goods come together.”

Sadly, in the case of Chris Quinn and term limits, never the twain shall meet-and her attempt to conflate her own usurpation of the popular will with the high principles of representative democracy doesn’t pass the smell test. Advocate de Blasio makes the point: “Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, a potential rival to Ms. Quinn for mayor in 2013, said he firmly disagrees with the speaker's stance on overturning referendums.”Only the people can decide that issue," he said, referring to term limits. "Unfortunately what we saw two years ago was incredibly undemocratic." Mr. de Blasio accused Mr. Quinn and others of looking out for their own careers instead of focusing on what's best for the city.”

Indeed so; but the issue for democratic theory here-as long as Quinn has waxed philosophical-is the tension between indirect representation and the popular will, something that Quinn had recognized a couple of years before the controversial vote: “In December 2007, Ms. Quinn said she would "not support the repeal or change of term limits through any mechanism, and I will oppose aggressively any attempt by anyone to make any changes in the term limits law. The voters have made their will very, very clear."

But that was then. In the intervening period, the speaker immersed herself in the writings of Edmund Burke, a conservative icon whose writings evinced a healthy suspicion of direct democracy and mob rule. From Burke, Quinn went on to peruse the Federalist Papers (especially #10) and become more understanding of the concept of majority faction. It’s always nice to know the erudition of our elected leaders.

Still, it’s hard to see how she will be able to avoid being tar babied by the issue if she decides to run city wide in 2013-especially since the overthrow of term limits is an especially sensitive issue for voters in a Democratic primary. We’ll give our friend Doug Muzzio the last word-although he’s more circumspect than we would be: “Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College, said the term-limits issue is going to be with her for the "rest of her political career. Whether it is a significant factor or a minor factor is the question," he said.”