Politics

Term Limits Aren't Working

Does that bother anybody? Not the voters, at least so far.
by | April 2005
 

If you have a job anywhere in state government, it's pretty likely you're carrying a grudge against term limits. There's a growing consensus among both legislators and executives in the 15 term-limited states that the system has weakened legislatures, draining them of experienced leadership and leaving inexperienced replacements at the mercy of lobbyists and bureaucrats with greater career stability.

A new study of the California's once-proud legislature from the state's Public Policy Institute offers some hard data to back up those opinions. The institute examined the progress of 2,000 bills introduced both before and after term limits and found that inexperienced committee chairs under the new regime are less likely to act as legislative "gatekeepers" in the traditional way. Instead, they push through more bills that lack polish and are then gutted as they make their way through the process. Term-limited legislators made half as many changes to governors' budgets than their more experienced predecessors and offered weaker executive branch oversight in general.

More fundamentally, term limits have done nothing to further their sponsors' original ideal of freeing legislatures from the grip of career politicians who raise vast sums from special interest groups. What seems to happen is that instead of becoming grizzled and entrenched in one chamber or the other, today's politicians hop between chambers and then, in many cases, to lucrative lobbying jobs. At the start of any session, most of the freshmen state senators in term-limited legislatures come from the state House. They just switch seats.

For all of these demonstrable failings, however, repealing term limits is no easy trick. They retain a residual popularity among the voters. Voters in Arkansas and Montana soundly defeated proposed extensions last November. California defeated one in 2002.

But legislators, still perceiving a problem, haven't given up. That may be why about half the states operating under term limits are considering proposals to extend the length of time legislators may serve, without lifting the limits altogether. Baxter Troutman, a Florida state representative who hopes to ease the limits for his successors, says the real argument now is about how long members need to serve before they can be effective when handed real power as leaders and committee chairs. "We've tried eight years," Troutman says, "and eight isn't enough. We need to take a hard look at 12."

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