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Term Limit Reform Reform (Not A Typo)

April 23, 2010

Somewhere in between a blessing and a curse lies the fact that, no matter how much there has been, there can always be more reform. Take the recent health care bill. It took steps to improve our health care system and created a framework in which every American can obtain affordable insurance – a monumental accomplishment, to be sure – but it didn’t institute a single-payer system, establish a public option or the tort system. Presumably, those will be the reforms on the table next time the political sphere focuses on health care, be it five or 20 years down the road. Human beings aren’t perfect and it follows that our governments and societies will never be perfect. If they’re never perfect, they can always be improved. Thus, the endless treadmill of reform.

An example of the endless possibilities for reform is playing out now in California, where yesterday a group turned in 1 million signatures in support of a ballot measure to change the term limit rules in the Legislature, essentially assuring it a place on the November ballot. Currently, legislators are permitted a total of 14 years, 3 2-year terms in the Assembly and 2 4-year terms in the Senate as a result of 1990’s Prop. 140. The California Legislative Term Limits Reform Act of 2010 would allow legislators to serve 12 years but spend them in either chamber and it’s supported by a major LA union group as well as the LA Chamber of Commerce. Strange bedfellows, to say the least.

The central conflict here is between legislative expertise and legislative stultification. We want new legislators to be able to learn the ins and outs of our state government but we don’t want them to stay there so long that the power becomes concentrated in the legislator and not the electorate. The archetypal example is former Assembly Speaker and subsequent Mayor of San Francisco Willie Brown: Prop. 140 was actually passed in part to relieve him from his position as the principal power broker in Sacramento after he had spent 30 years in the Assembly and 15 years as Assembly Speaker. The limits created by Prop. 140 are among the strictest in the country.

The perverse effect of Prop. 140 was that, while it has prevented power from becoming too concentrated in legislators, it has forced less-experienced legislators to rely on permanent staffers and lobbyists, who are of course not elected and thus not necessarily as committed to the common good. The heightened turnover also compels legislators to always be looking forward to their next elected position, at the expense of efforts at bipartisanship and attention to long-term policy making.

To me, the current term limits seem too strict – there’s something to be said when the Chamber of Commerce and the unions are supporting the same thing – though generally I believe term limits to have a positive effect on politics. The measure would actually reduce the total amount of time a legislator can spend in Sacramento and current legislators would still be restricted by the Prop. 140 limits, both pluses. However, Eric McGhee of the Public Policy Institute of California points out that many of the current problems arose before Prop. 140 fully took effect:

[T]he parties grew apart in California well before the passage of term limits.  The same holds for the budget process: It became more protracted in the 1990s, but most of this development occurred before term limits forced any member from the legislature.

So, maybe this reform won’t do much, meaning we’ll be back on the  treadmill before too long.

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