If elected officials were half as imaginative at solving real problems as they are at perpetuating themselves in office, we'd see real confidence in government restored. Alas, the big issue on many pols' minds right now is getting rid of the term-limit laws that threaten to knock down their impregnable incumbent fortresses.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995 threw out 21 states' voter-approved term limits on members of Congress, that 5-4 ruling didn't affect limits on state and local legislators and other officials. This year, such officials are mounting full-scale efforts to overturn the will of the people. Voters must remain constantly vigilant, lest incumbents roll back restrictions on their own tenure.
This desire is bipartisan. A majority of Idaho voters supported term limits four times during the 1990s, but in 2002 that state's Republican-dominated Legislature overrode GOP Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's veto and passed a law repealing them.
In New York City, the Democratic City Council is contemplating subverting the will of the voters by voting to extend its own members' term limit to 12 years from eight. That puts councilmen on a collision course with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who thinks turnover on the council is good. He also supports the existing two-term limit on his own tenure. "The public has spoken twice, and they've spoken quite clearly," the mayor says. "I don't know that you should keep shopping for a different answer."
But that's exactly the kind of shopping that California politicians are now looking to do. This month state legislators are rushing to put together a package deal for the voters this November, under which would give up their power to draw their own districts if in return they get a chance to stay in office longer.
California's term limits are increasingly under attack for allegedly making the Legislature even more dysfunctional. A steady stream of recent articles have blamed the limits for increasing the power of lobbyists and destroying the Legislature's institutional memory. Critics urge an extension of limits to 12 years, rather than the current limits of six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate.
The critics protest too much. Mark Petracca, a liberal who chairs the political science department at the University of California at Irvine, notes that lobbyists actually dislike term limits because they have less influence with a steady influx of unpredictable new legislators. "It's no surprise that business and labor interests have long been reliable opponents of term limits," he notes. "There is no systematic evidence that lobbyist power has swelled under term limits."
Other groups have obvious self-interested reasons to oppose term limits. "Journalists who cover politics hate term limits," says columnist Jill Stewart, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times. "They must cozy up to a new bunch of lawmakers every time the old bunch is forced out. They have to develop new sources and Horrors! update their Rolodexes."
She says tying the relaxation of term limits to redistricting reform is a bad bargain because the proposed independent redistricting panel is likely to be a "bogus" reform. Another purportedly independent commission, set up by the Legislature to set the pay of lawmakers, ended up approving the highest salaries of any Legislature in the country.
At least one Democratic proponent of redistricting reform warns that tying the two issues together is a poison pill designed to preserve legislative gerrymandering. "I think it's a death wish," state Sen. Alan Lowenthal told reporters. "It's a sham." He notes that voters only 25% of whom view the Legislature favorably are likely to view any tying of term limits with redistricting reform with great cynicism and vote both ideas down.
Indeed, recent political history is replete with examples of voters being offered a dilution of term limits wrapped in a variety of appealing guises. Almost without exception, the electorate rejected them. Examples:
In 2002, California term-limit opponents spent $11 million promoting a ballot measure that would have allowed individual incumbents an extra four years in office if they gathered signatures showing their local constituents supported their staying on. Opponents spent less than $1 million but defeated the measure 58% to 42%.
In 2004 Montana's Legislature referred a measure to the ballot to extend the state's eight-year term limit to 12 years. It won only 31% of the vote.
That same year, legislators in Arkansas tried the same thing and lost, 70% to 30%.
Early this year, Florida's GOP Legislature placed a measure on the ballot to lengthen the state's term limit to 12 years. A few months later, after polling showed it losing badly, they took the unprecedented step of pulling the measure off the ballot.
Just last week, Kansas City voters were asked to gut term limits, but over 69% of them rejected the idea.
Some California officeholders sincerely believe the current limits of six and eight years are too short. I myself believe the provision banning anyone from ever again serving in the Legislature is too extreme. But if legislators want modifications, they should ask voters to make the change with an initiative written in plain English that isn't tied to the fate of other reforms they should have passed years ago. Pete Schabarum, a former Los Angeles County supervisor and a co-author of California's 1990 term limits law, says the "support of California's voters should be earned, not demanded as ransom while holding real policy improvements hostage."
Term limits are no panacea for the ills of politics. But they appear to be one campaign reform that voters strongly believe will produce benefits for the system. The Supreme Court's 1995 decision blunted the national effort to put term limits on Congress, but in the absence of a genuine grassroots effort by voters to alter term limits at the state and local levels, it is the height of self-serving behavior for legislators to attempt to extend their own time in office.