Hiram College

Hiram College President Thomas V. Chema published an op-ed in Crain’s Cleveland Business on March 8, 2010. His piece, reproduced here, calls for changes in the perks that public officials receive for their service. Here’s the full text of Chema’s article about the “professionalization of politics.”

It is not exactly news that our legislative bodies, whether we are talking about the General Assembly in Columbus or the Congress in Washington, D.C., are not performing at the optimum.

There are many reasons for this partisan gridlock, but as citizens, we all need to find solutions and find them quickly. I would like to suggest that one reason for our current mess is that we have increasingly “professionalized” the holding of public office

Since the early 1970s, changes to election laws, including campaign finance reforms and other efforts to instill ethics into our public officials, have had a series of unintended consequences. Today, it is less and less likely that regular citizens will take time from their businesses, professions or the academy to serve in office. We have made it much too complicated, expensive and unattractive to be a true citizen legislator.

Instead, in our attempts to rectify various abuses, particularly around funding, we have unintentionally created professional politicians who make holding office a 30-year career — culminating in a very generous payout from the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System or similar pension.

Although our country was founded on the premise that ordinary citizens become involved in government, it is safe to wonder today who is serving whom. In fact, today there are basically two paths to hold public office: One, you are rich to start with and therefore can afford to spend your own money seeking a position; or two, you start out in an elected office (usually at the local level) and move from one office to another.

This has, in fact, stopped the revolving door, but it hardly has been beneficial. Moreover, after eight or 10 years in the system, there is an enormous incentive to keep running for office. That incentive is the public pension system, which is very hard to resist with its defined benefits and health care opportunities.

To overcome this professionalization of public office, two decades ago we turned to another reform called “term limits.” This effort to regulate the length of time a citizen can serve in an elected office has undermined institutional memory and seeded enormous power to unelected staff and lobbyists. Term limits just have not worked in Ohio. In fact, the unintended consequence of this reform is that our state government is even less effective — a huge problem in these difficult economic times.

How to deal with this issue? I suggest a three-tiered approach that gets back to our founders’ view of citizen legislators, who took time away from their careers to engage in public service, rather than making legislative service a career.

First, abandon term limits, at least for legislators. Second, prohibit elected public officials from participating in the public pension systems. Third — and this will not be popular — pay elected public officials more reasonable salaries.

These steps will not solve all the partisan bickering and liberal/conservative inability to compromise, but they will stop the constant moving from office to office and will discourage people from holding on to elective office because of their personal economic stake. And maybe it will encourage elected officials to truly represent all of the public, rather than the subgroups that help them get re-elected.

In politics, as in all other human endeavors, the ends do not justify the means. Getting elected should be a means to serving the public interest, not the end — personal economic benefit.

Hiram College is home of the Garfield Institute for Public Leadership. Rooted in the leadership of U.S. President James A. Garfield, a former Hiram student, professor, and principal, the Institute prepares students to assume the responsibilities of public leadership by developing expertise in matters of public policy, foreign and domestic, grounded in Hiram’s traditional liberal arts education. The Institute also serves to educate the public by bringing to campus persons whose own responsible leadership enables them to help clarify issues of public policy.