Having spent a lot of time traveling the country, I believe Vermont’s political system is the most democratic of any of the 50 states — a state where each Vermonter really does have a say in what goes on around them. We are far from perfect, but we are closer to perfect than anyone else.
Every decade or so, there is a push to extend the term of Vermont’s governor and other offices, including the terms of some legislators, from two years to four. The arguments in favor are always the same: “We could function more efficiently if we had four years to achieve our goals; the public would be spared all those expensive campaigns and awful ads.”
These arguments sound good, but there is no evidence to support them. The truth is, a four-year term will do a great deal of harm to the state we love.
First: The two-year term makes government much more efficient. The truth is that politicians, like most of us, won’t make a decision until we have to. Give us four years and we’ll take four years. In Vermont, we have to face the voters every two years and defend our progress, leadership and decisions. It’s critical that we deliver for the voters. We can’t wait four years to move our state forward. History proves this.
The two decades in the past century which changed Vermont the most were the 1960s and the 1990s. During his three two-year terms in office, Phil Hoff changed the way the legislative seats were allocated to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court decision, and eliminated the often-abused Overseer of the Poor system where local townspeople appointed one of their own to decide who got help and who didn’t when they ran out of money for heat or food. Hoff found the state had little ability to predict its revenues, and that state government was run in many cases by independent commissioners, not the governor. He and the Legislature reorganized Vermont state government. The poll tax was repealed and Vermont’s first Fair Housing bill was passed. Hoff brought Vermont into the 20th century in six years, with two-year terms providing a referendum on his important agenda, and making him stronger with each election.
In successive two-year periods in the 1990s, I — with lawmakers and my administration — expanded an existing program to get everyone under 18 health insurance, while eliminating pre-existing conditions and preventing insurance companies from charging extra for older people.
In another two-year period, we started Success by Six, which eventually cut teen pregnancy and child abuse rates in Vermont in half. In one year, in response to a court decision, we made the state aid to education formula fairer for every child, and in another two-year period, allowed gay and lesbian Vermonters to finally have the same rights as everyone else, becoming the first in the nation to do so.
When the largest block of undeveloped land in the history of the state went up for sale, we helped put together the coalition, worked with lawmakers on funding, talked to the public in town meetings, and approved the largest land conservation deal east of the Mississippi since the Adirondack State Park in New York was created more than a century ago.
All these things were done in single two-year terms, precisely because the challenge was clear, and there was not time to waste. Many of these programs might have been talked to death in four-year terms, as is so often the case in Washington and in other states.
The two-year term makes democracy function much better than it does in most of the rest of the country. I have sympathy for those who do not like those awful political ads. I don’t like most of them, either. The alternative is to let the political class do what it wants for three years, and come before us only in the fourth year.
Some say, “Seems to work well in Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey, so let’s make Vermont more like those states.” I feel differently. Let’s make other states more like Vermont.
The price of democracy is citizen engagement. When citizens reduce their engagement, even well-meaning politicians forget whom they work for. I loved the two-year term as governor. I had to travel incessantly, but Vermont is geographically small enough that I was home every night to take my children to school the next day. I went to parades and town meetings all the time. That’s how I knew what was on Vermonters’ minds, sometimes even before they did.
In the long run, the four-year term will undermine the most important part of our citizen democracy, which is the notion that the political class works for us, rather than the other way around.
Politics works in Vermont partly because politicians understand that they can be fired after two years, and most importantly, that politics was never intended by the framers of the Vermont (or the U.S.) Constitution to be a lifelong profession.
The two-year term is a critical part of an insurance policy which keeps our political process about us and not about those who represent us. As we like to say in Vermont, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
Howard Dean is the former governor of Vermont, and former chairman of the DNC.