COLUMN: Legislators should not abdicate their responsibilities to the voting public

Tuesday, December 29, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 11:24 a.m. CST, Tuesday, January 5, 2010

I have never been a fan of legislators who separate themselves from controversial issues, opting instead to place them before the public for a vote. As set forth in the Constitution, the U. S. is a representative republic, one in which the voters elect an assembly to represent them in the making of law.

To those who disagree, believing that some issues are too important to be decided other than by popular vote, let us look into its mechanics versus that by the elected official. As a rule, the topics selected by legislatures or councils for public vote are controversial or “hot potato” items. In order to remain untainted by an unpopular or flawed decision, the elected representative passes the buck.

The danger accruing from this process is that instead of deliberating the pros and cons as they are elected and paid to do, the legislators abdicate their responsibility, placing the onus upon the public to decide an often controversial and highly emotional issue. This is exacerbated further by the voters' limited understanding of the issue as well as by the probability that it may be decided by one-third or less of the electorate. Bad law is much easier to pass than to repeal.

Examples are many and varied – elected officials can enact laws equally onerous as those passed by referendum. Take our City Council for example: In the opinion of many, the ordinances prohibiting harassment of bicyclists and outlawing smoking in private enterprises are decisions that have overstepped common sense and constitutional prerogatives. Nevertheless, right or wrong, the council saw a duty and voted accordingly – the corrective remedy is the ballot.

As for voting on issues as referendums, I will cover three. The first is the 1999 Proposition B vote to require local law enforcement to issue concealed carry permits for handguns to eligible citizens. A contentious issue that was highly lobbied against, the referendum failed by a narrow margin, primarily due to a nearly 3- -to-1 vote against in St. Louis and Kansas City. Elected representatives are far better suited to deliberate, debate and decide topics of this nature.

Here in Columbia, the council handed off the decision to employ mobile surveillance cameras as a crime-detection-and-reduction measure by opting to place it on the ballot. In my view, this is not an option for the public but rather for the duly elected. An issue driven by emotion, the cameras will likely win approval; however, budgetary considerations will place the ball back in the council’s court, the venue in which it should have been decided in the first place.

The granddaddy of all foolish referendums in Missouri was the 1992 vote to limit members of the General Assembly to eight years of service — four two-year terms in the House and two terms of four years in the Senate. That this citizens' initiative passed with an overwhelming majority (75 percent) is not surprising inasmuch as voters are only too quick to perceive the bulk of their problems as the fault of inept or shady legislators, a perception fueled by special interest groups.

It is ironic also that most voters are more or less satisfied with their own representative – the “throw the bums out” mentality is applied largely to those elected by others. The constituency then awakens to discover that in selecting this option, they have thrown the baby out with the bath water. And, this arbitrary limiting of terms – for every “bad” legislator ousted, a number of experienced and dedicated public servants are lost – comes at an unacceptable cost to good government.

The initial losses were felt in 2002, when 45 percent of the House and one-third of the Senate were turned out to pasture, a sizable cost to corporate memory and experience. It does not get any better: The 2010 exodus of 52 House members and 10senators will remove additional knowledgeable and skilled legislators from the General Assembly, primarily from leadership posts. The requirement for the “newbie” to learn on the job, along with unfamiliarity in dealing across political aisles, is a continuing recipe for disaster.

It did not have to be this way. When we, the electorate, allowed emotion to supplant common sense and good judgment and decided to impose term limits, we abdicated the responsibility that comes with citizenship. The notion that a “new broom sweeps clean,” that replacing an experienced, serving representative with a new one, regardless of how bright-eyed and eager, will somehow end corrupt practices is a fool’s paradise.

Removal of bad public servants is our responsibility — to recognize them individually and act accordingly. What employer retains ineffective employees for eight years while terminating also his best ones in the identical time frame? We get the government we deserve rather than that which we desire.

The shortsightedness of term limits is a self-inflicted casualty but, it is one can be cured by the same electorate that shot itself in the foot.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at




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