Term limits, as they are presently mandated, do as much harm as good. Certainly, the motivation for enacting them was understandable: citizens were fed up with a system where incumbents could scarcely be blasted out of office with anything short of an IED. But the eight-year term limit solution produced, at best, a situation where somewhat experienced lawmakers lead rank beginners through a complex process.
Uh-oh. Joint efforts of any kind do best with a mixture of newcomers with fresh ideas and people who’ve been around the block often enough to predict where the bumps and snarls will occur. Legislatures are no different. Let me invite any of our current legislators who read this posting–or anyone else, for that matter–to provide examples of problems that could have been avoided in recent sessions if a few old timers had been around.
And aside from creating glitches that should have been foreseen, the whole impermanency thing begets another problem: it contributes to the partisan fissures that cripple our state government. People who know what the lege used to be like say that reps could disagree on the floor and then go out for a brew together in the evening. Sure, I understand that part of the reason that no longer happens is the essential meanness of so many Republicans now. But part of the reason must also be that there’s little incentive to bridge the gaps when either you or the people you’re fighting with will be gone in a year or two.
Last spring, Senator Jolie Justus of Kansas City tried to overcome some of the sour aftermath of on floor bickering by arranging a weekly happy hour. That was a good idea, and perhaps she’ll follow through on it this January. It might help.
The problems that arise during legislative sessions because of term limits are only half the difficulty. The other half is what happens when people get termed out. The race in the fifth senatorial district is a perfect example: all four Democratic reps in Maida Coleman’s senatorial district (Robin Wright Jones, Rodney Coleman, Connie Johnson, and Tom Villa) are termed out–but not ready to leave state government. Two have announced for Coleman’s seat (she, too, is termed out), and the other two still might. It’s a mess.
Some legislators solve the termed out dilemma by turning to lobbying. Carl Bearden is the latest example. It’s good to let Dems have a shot at that yahoo’s seat, but when the short term limits were created, perhaps no one foresaw the unintended consequence that termed out reps would swell the ranks of lobbying leeches.
Meanwhile, in many districts, one or both parties are having trouble building farm teams good enough to keep supplying strong candidates to fill the frequent openings. Let’s see: how long has Albert Pujols been in the majors now–five years or six? I’d hate to see him shoved out of the sport in 2009. If baseball had term limits, it would hurt the quality of play. Few rookies can arrive from the minors and make an immediate impact on a team. Winning teams need a combination of seasoned veterans and up and comers.
The answer isn’t deep sixing term limits but lengthening the time allowed in office. And, in fact, the rumor is that a Republican, no less, plans to bring up the possibility this session of changing the limit for reps from eight years to eighteen. I’d cheer for that.