As speaker of the Arkansas House, Shane Broadway does just about anything he can to further the education of new members. He has them over to his office for dinner, serving them barbecued chicken while he explains the ins-and-outs of legislative life. He finds places for them on the most important committees and actually lets them chair panels that meet in between House sessions.
It sounds like a textbook case of a grizzled old veteran patiently breaking in the youngsters. But the truth is a little more complicated. The fact is, Shane Broadway himself has only been in the legislature a little more than two terms. When he became speaker this January, he was 28 years old.
That's the way things work in the age of term limits. In a land overrun by freshmen, the sophomore can end up being king.
Not many legislatures have leadership quite as new to the process as Broadway is, but in one way or another, many of them are facing a problem similar to the one in Arkansas. Where term limits prevail, leaders have to emerge fast, establish their priorities quickly and then turn to the training of the next generation of greenhorns who will soon replace them.
They are all doing it. The California Assembly, for instance, has an ambitious orientation program for freshmen called the Capitol Institute, which is more affectionately known as "Hertzberg U," after Speaker Robert Hertzberg, who implemented it before his one and only term in power. In the Michigan House, every newcomer gets an assigned leadership buddy to follow around in the confusing first few weeks.
More and more leaders are putting freshmen on powerhouse budget and tax committees, recognizing that they will soon be running those committees, whether they are ready or not, and that it will be better if they are ready. "Anybody who's going to be a leader in their fifth or sixth year," says Gary Moncrief, a Boise State University political scientist who has studied term limits, "is going to have to be chair of a significant committee in third or fourth year, so they're going to have to be thrown into the fire pretty quickly in first and second year."
That may just be common sense, but it's still a remarkable adaptation that legislators--who almost universally loathe term limits--are making to this massive disruption in their ordinary ways of doing business. They really have no choice. Whatever legislative leaders may think of term limits, the limits aren't going anywhere.
The good news for critics of the term-limit scheme is that it has probably peaked. Mississippi, the last state to vote on term limits, in a 1999 ballot initiative, voted them down. In virtually every other state that has not adopted a term-limits system, approval by the legislature itself would be required, and that does not appear to be on the horizon anywhere. Nevertheless, as the smoke clears, term-limit laws are on the books in 19 states, and every legislative leader in each of those states is faced with making the best accommodation he or she can make.
In one sense, the term-limits laws have accomplished their objective. Backers of the idea wanted to see more turnover in legislative bodies, and the turnover is happening. California and Maine, where term limits had the earliest impact, both experienced nearly complete turnover of their House membership by 1999, and the churning is continuing. Fourteen of Florida's 40 senators are newcomers this year. Forty-five were first elected to the Ohio House for this session--just under half of the body's 99 members.
All other suggested benefits are arguable, to say the least. There are more women and minority legislators than there used to be in most of the term-limits states, but that is true in most of the non-term- limits states as well. Colorado, whose legislature has been under term limits since 1998, actually has fewer female legislators than before the law was adopted.
Term limits have clearly brought a new cast of characters to the state legislative process, but in general, they do not seem to be the apolitical "citizen legislators" that term-limits advocates dreamed of bringing into the process. Most of the newcomers swept in by massive turnover in Arkansas, Michigan and California appear to be longtime local politicians who have taken a new job after serving at the city or county level. Much of Shane Broadway's new Arkansas flock are former county judges. They may be new to legislating, but they are still, by and large, political animals. "Career politics is alive and well, but the definition is a lot more flexible now," says Bruce Cain, director of UC Berkeley's Institute of Politics. "It can go in any direction now."
On the down side, many of the negatives that critics predicted a decade ago are coming to pass. Legislators are entering the fray with much less knowledge than the agencies and industries they are charged with regulating. "With term limits," says California state Senator Mike Machado, "you get many people without a broad-based knowledge. If they're not going to be there long enough, they fail to develop any background in the subject matter. Oftentimes, that leaves them dependent on third parties."
In the old days, when legislators entered quietly, served an apprenticeship of two or three terms, and then gradually eased into positions of power, the fact that they were relatively ignorant upon arrival may not have been a serious problem. But in the term-limited legislature, where newcomers have to assume positions of responsibility almost at once, ignorance is a critical failing, both for the member and the institution. "If you don't have continuity of legislators to learn complicated subjects," says Oregon state Representative Diane Rosenbaum, "then you do end up with a sort of dumbed-down legislative process."
These are the concerns that have led to the training programs launched by leaders such as Hertzberg in California and Broadway in Arkansas. But even the best training programs won't bring a freshly elected lawmaker up to speed on everything. Having procedures written down on a cheat sheet at the start of the year doesn't necessarily help a freshman think on her feet during the hubbub of a session's closing week.
"Half of our historical perspective walked out the doors on the same day" because of term limits, says Florida state Representative Nancy Detert. "What walked in that day are people with good intentions, and no clue of how to accomplish their goals."
Marc Haas, a one-time journalist who ran successfully last year for the Oregon House, found himself right out of the box with a plum assignment on the School Funding and Tax Fairness/Revenue Committee. There, he was suddenly confronted with the tangled issues of urban renewal and timber taxation, which are both enormously complex, while he was simultaneously trying to get up to speed on transportation and community health programs and all the rest of the state's activities. "Frankly," he says, "there were some freshmen--me included--who were really at the mercy of the experts from the Revenue Department and some of the lobbyists. Some of these complicated laws take just a very steep learning curve."
Other legislators in many states around the country, veterans as well as newcomers, echo Haas' claim that their hand has been weakened by the departure of so many senior members and the decline in institutional memory. In all the legislative chambers with stepped-up training and orientation programs, freshmen meet with agency leaders and take tours of department facilities to get a better grasp on how the executive branch functions. But those tours do not include confessions of what the agency might be doing wrong and what sort of additional scrutiny might be needed. The legislators still have to find out those things for themselves, and it is not easy to do right off the bat. "The bureaucrats have always been resentful that a legislator might have some idea about their department," says Joanne Emmons, majority leader of the Michigan Senate. "Now, the legislator isn't going to know what he should be investigating."
Of course, the idea that oversight of the executive branch is inadequate because of term limits is a little like the dog that doesn't bark. When oversight fails, it's impossible to prove that the old hands forced out by term limits would have done a better job of monitoring an agency's performance. Nor is there concrete evidence that governors are taking advantage of members' inexperience to become policy dictators. California's electricity deregulation fiasco, for example, is sometimes cited by critics of term limits as a bungle caused when Governor Pete Wilson and the state Public Utilities Commission foisted a deregulation law on a naïve term-limited legislature lacking in wisdom and experience. The only problem with that theory is that the two legislative negotiators who essentially wrote the final deregulation bill already had, between them, 20 years of experience in the legislature.
"There's lots of testimony by legislators that things have changed, but it's been very hard to get any hard evidence of the shift," says Berkeley's Cain. He has tried to compare the state budgets enacted in the past five years under term limits, during which the Assembly has gone through some half a dozen speakers, to the budgets passed in the 1980s and early '90s, when Speaker Willie Brown remained in power for 14 years. "There's no evidence yet that we can find," Cain says, "that the governor gets a budget that is closer to his initial numbers. If the governor is more powerful, you don't see it in the data on the budgeting."
One shift that does seem to be real is a shift in power between upper and lower legislative chambers. Where a House and Senate tended to be roughly equal in power in the days before term limits, the Senate has tended to gain influence since term limits kicked in. The National Conference of State Legislatures, which along with the Council of State Governments is embarking on a multi-year term-limit study, found in Arkansas, for example, that new House members, despite their stepped-up training, tended to defer to senators on questions of procedure. In many states, it is the Senate that is asking the tough questions of governors during budget sessions, and the Senate that tends to correct mistakes in legislation passed in haste by the House.
This seems to be due in large part to the way the term-limit laws themselves were written. Senators in many states are allowed longer careers than their House counterparts. Seven states hold their House members to no more than six years of service, while no state limits its senators to less than eight years. Senators also, in many cases, have accrued years of legislative experience in previous House service before crossing to the other chamber. It's true that traffic between term-limited chambers goes both ways, but it's been much more the case that the House proves the training ground for the Senate. In both Florida and Ohio, all but one of the freshman senators elected in 2000 had served in the House before.
Just a few experienced senators can make a big difference, especially when the size of the chamber itself is small. Consider the issue of school funding. As majority leader of the Colorado House in 1994, Norma Anderson wrote the state's school financing act. This year, the Colorado legislature was ready to revisit that act--or, at least, Anderson was. Anderson was term-limited out of the House and now serves in the Senate. "There's no one at this point in the House who was there when the school finance issue passed," she says. "Because we have more knowledge, senators can control more and know what's going on in the conference committee."
A similar dynamic played out on the education issue in Michigan. That state switched much of its school funding from property to sales taxes in the early 1990s. All the senators who were part of that deal are still in office (they'll be leaving in 2002). The House members who sat across the table from them are gone already. What did their successors arm themselves with in recent negotiations over the issue? A video, produced by the House fiscal agency, in which departed legislators who had helped work out the change were interviewed on camera.
Not all new legislators rely on videos to lay out the pros and cons of an issue for them. More often, lobbyists are the ones who fill in the training gap, holding seminars or otherwise explaining issues that seem to many newcomers hopelessly arcane. Sandy Bahr, conservation director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter, says she works hard to boil down her issues for new members in Arizona who may not have been following environmental disputes closely and don't know the background of deals brokered over a number of years. She has had to boil down to a sheet of talking points the legislative history of state streambed ownership--not an issue many people ran on, but one that is complex and heated and has been a perennial.
"What I see happening," Bahr says, "is legislators more and more will look to one person, whether it's one legislator or one lobbyist, to decide on issues like this. A lot of them just aren't going to do their homework." The bottom line, she concludes, is that special interests are more powerful than ever, as long as they are willing to work harder at it. The lobbyists at a disadvantage are those who relied on informal and long-lasting friendships with senior members who could exert major influence. In a term-limited state, being on cozy personal terms with the speaker or Senate president is a only an instrument of transitory power. There will be a new one in a couple of years. On the other hand, the interest groups that can afford the manpower to meet, greet, educate and win over big new crops of legislators every session are in stronger shape than they used to be.
"I think you do have to make some mistakes" in learning to become a good legislator, says Shane Broadway, the Arkansas speaker. "You've got to be careful not to make too many."