In the aftermath of September 11, a writer to The
New York Times spoke for
many New Yorkers when he wrote, "There is no more eloquent testimony to the
mindlessness of term limits than the performance of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani
during this time of crisis. We mistake change for improvement, and New York City
will be the poorer because of our unwillingness to let the voters decide when a
leader should depart."
An extraordinary crisis coupled with a gifted leader is a powerful argument
against arbitrary limits in the executive branch. It was fortunate for the nation
that President Lincoln could run for a second term in 1864 and President
Roosevelt could run for a third term in 1940 and then a fourth in 1944.
The nation's state legislatures present an even stronger argument against
term limits. There, the pluses--greater diversity, more members with local
government experience--can't make up for the damage done. The damage wouldn't be
so great if the United States had a parliamentary system filled with backbenchers,
one in which the prime minister and the cabinet did the heavy lifting of
lawmaking. But, as former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan has pointed out,
legislatures have the real power in the United States.
At the municipal level, term limits make some sense; school boards and city
councils are where many political careers begin. Yet severe term limits at the
state level are a different matter. And, because the U.S. Supreme Court wisely
ruled against term limits being applied to Congress, it is in the nation's state
legislatures where reforms wreak havoc.
In the nation's legislatures, where experience, wisdom, and relationships make
all the difference, the trouble is subtle and deep. Lawmaking, oversight, and
leadership all suffer when the players change before any significant progress is
made. And, when people who have only just learned the system are running it, the
danger of a catastrophic mistake--such as California's botched attempt to
deregulate its electrical power system--is markedly increased.
In at least 10 of the 19 states with term limits, there have been proposals
this year to modify or repeal the laws. Maine, Arkansas, and Arizona are among
the other states where legislators are questioning the wisdom of the voters.
In California, term limits went into effect in 1990. The largest state in
population is also the fifth-largest economy in the world. Along with Michigan,
California has the strictest term limits in the nation--three two-year terms in
the state assembly and two four-year terms in the senate. The size and complexity
of the Golden State--along with the restrictive terms allowed--make the
California legislature a case worth examining.
Once upon a time, the California state assembly was admired for its
professionalism and competence. Now, thanks to term limits, the constant churning
of new members has left the lower house suspended between the superficial and the
chaotic. In the heydays of Jesse Unruh and Willie Brown, the speaker of the
assembly was easily the second most-powerful player in the state and often the
governor's equal. Now the speakership is a short-term gig, a jumping-off platform
for a run for statewide office or big-city mayor.
Dan Savage, chief of staff to Los Angeles Assemblyman Gilbert Cedillo,
points at the official photo of the 1998 assembly that shows the 80 members behind
their desks. Savage goes down the rows: "She's gone to the Senate, she's gone to
Congress, he's termed out... ." It's a wonder anyone is left. And that's the
idea. Says Savage, "Everyone walks around with an expiration date stamped on
Debra Bowen, an environmental lawyer who chairs the Energy Committee in the
California State Senate, was first elected to the state assembly in 1992. She
admits that term limits put her on the fast track: They've "increased
opportunities for women and minorities. It has opened up the system." Still, the
Democrat remains adamantly opposed. "I ask people in industry, 'How well would
your company run if every two years you got a new CEO and one-third of your board
of directors left?'"
Assemblyman Cedillo is one of a growing group of Latino legislators in
Sacramento. He too realizes the debt that he and other Latinos owe to term
limits. Still, the legislator says the downsides of term limits are significant.
"When you think about professors, brain surgeons, mechanics, the thing they
have in common is expertise and experience. In any important decision in your
life, you try to get help from the best person, the most capable, the most
experienced. So why do we turn government over to amateurs? We are responsible
for health care, infrastructure, education. What could be more important? It's
like I want to make a movie and instead of hiring Al Pacino, I take a chance on
some high-school kid."
Critics of term limits predicted this loss of expertise, but there are a
number of unintended consequences to ponder. Many of them flow from the new
incentive structure created by term limits. In California, until the incumbent
terms out, re-election is still almost guaranteed. But now, legislators spend
their terms planning a safe leap to the next political office. Astute observers
understand that members in their last term will be anxiously working to secure
their next base.
L.A. resident Cedillo goes for a local sports metaphor to make his point:
"Think of athletes on term limits. Imagine telling Shaquille O'Neal, 'Okay, Shaq,
your six years are up in the NBA, now you're going to the NFL.' Or Phil Jackson
talking to Kobe Bryant and asking why he is working on his golf swing instead of
his jump shot. 'Because I have to switch sports next year, Coach, and I have to
get ready now.'"
John M. Carey, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, predicted
the "last-term" problem after studying the effect of term limits on lawmakers in
Costa Rica--one of the only countries in the world that had term limits in effect
before the U.S. experiment. Because "ambitious legislators will cater to those
who control future career opportunities," says Carey, "we can expect shirking of
duties and outright corruption in the last term." With California State Assembly
tenure set at six years by term limits, this means that members will suffer
"senior-itis" in their last term. But because the chance for secure advancement
can be tenuous, jumpiness actually occurs much earlier.
"There is an institutional incentive that moves people to run for the state
senate at an accelerated pace," says Savage. "It used to be that the senate had
the more experienced members. Under the old system, the 'apprenticeship' in the
assembly could be six, eight, or 10 years. Now it is literally six to 10 months.
If a state senate seat opens up, you've got to go for it."
Bowen says the subject matter can be learned. However, there is more to being
a good legislator than being a quick study. She says, "The big picture is what we
really lose. It is harder for people to see the whole. This is especially true in
terms of budget and finance."
People too often forget that being a legislator is not just about writing
bills, says Bowen. Oversight of agencies and existing programs is a crucial part
of the job. When the legislature drops the ball on oversight, an important check
and balance in the constitutional system is weakened. As an example, Bowen points
to the dismal performance of California's Department of Information Technology:
"This is an agency that has never done what it is supposed to do." New members
continually "hear the sob story for the first time."
Even those who favor term limits see the problems caused by the
California model. Orange County Republican Curt Pringle became speaker after
Brown's exit. After a failed run for state treasurer, he now heads a corporate
public-relations firm. Pringle says that he favors term limits but would like to
lengthen the amount of time allowed in the legislature. Twelve years, he says,
would give members time to learn their jobs, and leaders could practice their
craft. "The average Joe doesn't know there is a job you have to learn in the
legislature," says Pringle. "In fact, there are rules, procedures, techniques,
and styles just like any profession. It's not just osmosis. In addition, there
are additional skills for leaders--negotiating, leadership, working with your
caucus and the other party."
The brevity of power and the inability of leaders to gain experience
constitute term limits' major flaws. Sheila Kuehl is a state senator from Santa
Monica who was speaker pro tem in the assembly. Under strict term limits, she
says, "people have to decide too soon that they want to lead. They are trying to
shine before they know the process. It's nothing but blind ambition."
Most observers give former Democratic Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and his
successor, Robert M. Hertzberg, high marks for energy, intelligence, and
collegiality in working with Republican members. Villaraigosa excelled at
bringing together coalitions. Hertzberg brought new members and staff up to speed
with his education crash course nicknamed "Hertzberg U." But, having termed out,
neither has a chance to apply the lessons they learned. GOP Assemblyman Bill
Leonard says some bills died at the end of session because they weren't managed
correctly: "When it's your first time running the show as speaker, that can
Today, the ballast in the legislature is State Senate President Pro Tem John
Burton, who began his political career in the state assembly in 1964 and then
moved on to Congress from 1974 to 1982. When elected to the California senate in
1998, he promptly took leadership of the body. Known for his gruff, no-nonsense
manner, the liberal Burton will lead California's upper house until 2004, and his
experience gives the legislature some continuity of leadership. "We will go
through four speakers while Burton and Governor [Gray] Davis stay in place," says
the assembly's majority leader Kevin Shelley, a San Francisco Democrat. Having a
person with Burton's experience as leader is crucial, he says: "It's huge. He
will be in office as long as Davis is governor, and that makes all the
But Burton and his senior colleagues in the senate are an anomaly, a vestige
of the past. The assembly shows the future. As the speakership flips every two
years, so do committee chairs. Pringle says that the critical misconception is
thinking about term limits as having set six-year terms. "Leaders themselves turn
over so much more quickly than six years. And there is a ripple effect down
through the committees and staff."
Savage, Shelley, and Bowen all say it takes time to learn to understand people
in the other party. "It is especially hard to build relationships with people who
are ideologically different than you," according to Savage. In a traditional
legislature, members develop personal bonds and find common ground. Relationships
across the aisle are critical, especially in states such as California, where the
state constitution mandates two-thirds votes the budget, to raise taxes or
increase fees, and to pass "urgency" legislation, such as the bills to address
the state's energy crisis.
Under term limits, time is precious. Everyone is in a hurry. As a
result, people have to ask for support of bills before they have a relationship
with their colleagues. "It's almost like telemarketing, cold-calling," says
Savage. "This is my bill, this is what it does, and this is why I want your
support." In the past, requests like this were embedded in a broader social
relationship of trust and knowledge built over years--instead of days and months.
In addition, says Bowen, "the fact that the legislature is more diverse makes the
bonding harder. In the old days, the boys bonded by having a few beers."
Because nothing in state politics gets done except by coalition, bonding
and networking among legislators and between parties are critical. "You can't
accomplish anything by yourself," Bowen says. Shelley recalls that when he was a
kid just out of college working for the legendary Representative Phil Burton in
Washington, D.C., the congressman gave him a piece of advice that he's never
forgotten. "We were in the Rayburn Room when he pulled me aside. Burton said,
'Remember this, kid, if you want to be successful in this business. Whatever else
you do, don't lie!' I blurted out, 'Oh, Mr. Congressman, such morality is so
noble.' Then he set me straight: 'No, [expletive deleted]! If you lie, you won't
ever be able to cut a deal!'"
"Today people don't seem to understand that," says Shelley as he munches a
salad at his desk in a corner office on the capitol's third floor. "They come back
to you and say, 'I changed my mind.' And you say, 'But you told me ... ,' and
they say, 'Sorry, things have changed.'" As a result, negotiations are much more
confusing, and Shelley says, "That is, without question, a product of term
Shelley grew up the son of the San Francisco mayor and served two terms as
president of the board of supervisors before going to Sacramento. With his term
up, he is running for secretary of state. "It's not that people are less
honorable," he says. "It's just that they make a calculation that long-range
relationships are no longer so important. Under term limits, everything is
short-term. People feel like they have to make an immediate impact. Before, if
your goal was to craft good health-care legislation, you would invest the time to
build a coalition and bring people to the table," he explains. "Now, it's like
the doctor has told you that you have only one year to live. There is no
incentive for the long-term push. Instead, you just go out and introduce a bill."
Introduce a bill and claim credit. Such résumé padding has
dramatically pushed up the number of bills introduced in California and other
states with term limits.
Bowen believes that the problems with term limits are subtle yet profound. "It
affects how we grapple with larger issues," she says. "Relationships of trust
that transcend party lines ... are the lubrications that move the machinery of
government." For example, Shelley and other Democratic leaders say that they
sorely miss former Republican leader Scott Baugh. Baugh forged a good working
relationship with Democratic leaders and, partially as a result, the budget came
in on time in 1999 and 2000.
"Rather than be liberated by term limits, we are more encumbered by politics,"
says Cedillo. "People should be focused on their job. Instead, they are focused
on the next step. It makes it more political than it should be. From the first
day, people are lobbying for leadership and thinking about the next office." Bowen
says that the politics of such maneuvers reminds her of "all the turtles jostling
and climbing over one another in a pet store."
Leonard, elected to the assembly in 1996 with 15 years of legislative
experience (none under term limits), suggests that one of the key weaknesses of
the new regime is the inability of lawmakers to work on complex issues. "Under
the old system," he says, "people would work on something that could take years
Today, Cedillo agrees. "You can do the routine, but not the paradigm shifts.
Under term limits, how are you going to match jobs with industry?" he asks. "Or
think about global competition? Or how to redo Proposition 13 so that homeowners
are protected? Or come up with a policy to deal with the housing/job imbalance in
the state? What collective group of legislators has the stature to take on these
problems? No one is around long enough to work on them." When term limits come to
roost, the big, complex problems are left unattended.
Granted, state governments have not halted and lobbyists have not taken
over. Across the nation, newly elected men and women come to the state capitols
eager to make their mark. Legislatures are adapting to term limits by fits and
starts. The learning curve has been accelerated. Still, says Kuehl, "experience
is very important, but under term limits you can't have enough to do a good job.
There is just not sufficient time to know enough." Of course, legislators are
supremely self-interested. For selfish reasons, they'd love to break free of term
limits. But the triple gaps of leadership, long-term policy, and stable
relationships are real. All seriously weaken the legislative branch.
What can be done? Pringle, besides supporting 12-year limits in both
houses, says he has approached a national term-limits advocacy group about
pushing for such a change. "We are not talking about lengthening terms but rather
allowing for leadership," he says.
In March, Californians will vote on a ballot initiative intended to slightly
loosen the limits. The measure would allow voters to sign a petition allowing
their own legislator to serve an additional four years beyond the regular limit,
assuming that the politician can get re-elected. Lawmakers working behind the
scenes in support of the measure include Democratic Assemblyman Herb Wesson, the
next speaker, and Democratic Senator Don Perata, who led a failed legislative
effort to relax term limits last year.
But few observers are optimistic about a change any time soon. Scholars and
politicians acknowledge that selling the public on the need for adjusting term
limits, much less outright abolition, is tricky at best. "Term limits were cooked
up by people who don't like government," says Bowen. "So if government doesn't
work, so what?
"I'll never forget talking to the CEO of one of California's leading high-tech
firms. He said, 'You know, I never think about the state government. It's just not
important. Who needs it? Who cares?'" Bowen observes, "Of course, he could afford
to be blasé because he could take for granted that he would have water,
roads, schools, infrastructure, services, and not be vandalized. I wonder what he
thinks now. The energy crisis might have gotten his attention."