Saturday, July 30, 2011

Reflections on Term Limits

I belong to a Facebook group that is composed of current and former political types that was originally started by one of the premier political consultants and is now maintained by his daughter.  One description of the group is diverse - the political philosophies of the members are pretty wide.    A recent report by a researcher at the Center for Governmental studies showed that at least on the issue of term limits there is almost uniformity on one issue - whether term limits, as they were enacted in California were a good idea.   Most of my colleagues in the group say no.  Indeed, the leader of the group wrote her dissertation on the subject.
There are common themes in the opposition.  For example, most of the members say that elections should be left up to the voters - i.e. they argue that if voters want to keep someone in office for a long time, they should be able to.   And indeed like many political arguments there is some merit to that position.   The Center’s report  summarized the conventional wisdom on term limits.   This week, the group had a lot of posts on term limits.  
Since the implementation of term limits began in 1996 there have been some common criticisms.  First, there is pretty high turnover in the legislature.   The report found that 241 members over the fifteen years since the initiative really took effect have been moved out.   At the same time, members have less expertise on the intricacies of the legislative process.  Anyone with long experience in the process can point to a member who knew the insides and out of an area.   There are also the lapses in process.  The legislature has a set of rules which are often breached in this new era. The leadership decisions, especially in the Assembly, are convoluted.  One needs to make a move for Speaker in the first two years of a six year stay.  Finally, besides the Speakership, there is the constant shuffling of politicians.  One can see in California a constant game of changing places much of it brought about by term limits.   
There are also some problems with the legislative process that have developed in a more pronounced way since term limits took effect but which there is considerable evidence that the developments are coincident rather then caused by the measure.  Two of the most common are the increased influence of staff and lobbyists in the political process.  That effect has been profound in California (which has term limits) but is also evident in Washington where there are no term limits.
What is often overlooked are the positive aspects of term limits.  From the report and from my perspective there are three.  First, more members are experienced in local politics.   Near the end of the non-term limited era many legislators came from legislative staff.  That is no longer true. The new class of members are more knowledgable about their districts.   Second, the average age of legislators has increased a bit.  They come to the process with more experience as elected officials.      Finally, there are more Latinos in the legislature - their numbers have grown four fold.   Some opponents suggest that would have happened anyway and that could be possible.
Every public policy has positive and negative results; and although I recognize the problems created by the initiative on balance I think the positives have outweighed the negatives.   There is an assumption by many that policy wonks make better legislators, and while I like members who know something about the areas in which I work, most of the issues in the political system are less conditioned on technical issues than on political allocations. At the same time, while the era prior to term limits created some members with expertise, it also created some roadblocks.  Some members stayed well beyond their time. My favorite example was a member who began his service in the 1930s and ended it in the late 1990s.
One branch of economics offers some insights on the issues raised by term limits.  public choice economics is a branch that was originated by James Buchanan (for which he won the Nobel in Economics in 1986) and Gordon Tullock.   Writers on legislative issues argue that the first role of any politician is to win re-election.  e.g. Politicians do not give up their self interest when they are elected to office.   By limiting member tenure we encouraged them to look even more aggressively for their next job.   The idea that there would be “citizen” politicians if Proposition 140 passed was silly based on the theory building in Public Choice.  At the same time, public choice has a body of literature that describes limits in political systems that are made to curtail some of the negative qualities of self-interest.  Aaron Wildavsky called those decisions “no-ing thyself.”   Term limits are one of those which have the potential to curb some of the distortions in the system that happened when member tenure was conditioned by redistricting. 
So where do I agree with my colleagues?  First, while I think the benefits of term limits outweigh the costs, I believe the system could improve a lot if the proposal by many to limit membership in the legislature to 12 years, without regard to where the term(s) are served were adopted.   That might improve the leadership process in the Assembly.   The influence of lobbyists and staff may be a problem without a solution.  Slightly longer terms might give some members more independence but that speculation is by no means certain.

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