Fifteen years ago or so, around the time legislatures were first passing term limits laws, we ran an article in this magazine pondering what life in a term-limited legislature might be like in the 21st century. We envisioned that with the members limited to fixed careers of six or eight years, these places would turn into hothouses of impatience and ambition, with members sparring for power and leverage from the day they were sworn in.
The article was slightly tongue-in-cheek, but it's turned out to be truer that we ever thought possible. What's happening in some states borders on the bizarre. A few weeks ago, a Republican in the Florida House, Dean Cannon, announced he had been chosen as Speaker--for the session beginning in 2010. He had pledges from a majority of the GOP Caucus, he said, so there was no need for anyone else to apply.
At the time of his announcement, Cannon (pictured here) had been serving in the legislature for all of eight months. He had spent virtually every day of his brief incumbency running for a leadership job that wouldn't open up for five years. That didn't strike him as unusual. "I think everyone who comes in here wants to be speaker," Cannon said.
But it is unusual--or at least rather irrational. Nobody knows what the world will be like in 2010, let alone what sort of leadership a legislative body might need at that point. And even if those things were knowable, eight months is a ludicrously short time for colleagues to spend with someone prior to anointing him. I'd be willing to bet that quite a few of the members who voted for Cannon for speaker-of-the-future hardly even knew him. The whole thing is sort of like choosing the senior class president in the first semester of freshman year. Even high school kids have more sense than that.
Why would any legislature in its right mind do such a thing? Well, there's one halfway sensible explanation. Put a few dozen ambitious people in an important legislative body, tell them they have to leave in eight years, and you're practically asking them to spend the whole eight years trying to outmaneuver each other for position. If you make the choice in Year 1, rather than Year 8, you may be making it in ignorance, but you spare the whole institution years of bickering. In an odd sort of way, it's like giving out committee chairmanships purely on seniority, as Congress used to do. You won't get the best leaders most of the time, but you'll keep the conflict down. That's worth something.
Of course, there's another possible solution: Abandon term limits altogether and let legislators serve as long as the voters want them in office. Then they could work their way patiently into positions of expertise and influence, offering themselves for leadership at a point in their careers when their colleagues actually knew something about them. That still happens in the 30 or so states that managed to avoid the term-limits fad of the early 90's. But it won't happen in Florida any time soon.