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The folly of term limits

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After I wrote my column on the problem of the filibuster, I got a lot of e-mails agreeing with the thrust of the piece, but urging term limits as the real answer to the dysfunctions of the Congress. After I wrote my column on the problems of California, I got more e-mails agreeing that congressional dysfunction is a big issue, but arguing that term limits are the answer.

The problem with that, of course, is that California already has term limits. And they're a disaster.

Virtually everyone I interviewed for that piece named term limits as a contributor to California's fiscal crisis. Imagine, for instance, that you elect a well-liked local physician's assistant to the state Assembly. Doesn't matter the party. Our hypothetical legislator might know a lot about medical care. But she probably knows nothing about the budget. This stuff takes awhile to learn, after all. And remember, she's not studying budget politics full time: She's raising money and dealing with constituent service and reading up on other bills and traveling back-and-forth from her district.

So how long till our doctor-legislator really gets the budget, understands the legislative process, and matures into the sort of seasoned assemblywoman we'd want responding to a devastating fiscal crisis? Eight years? Twelve years? More?

Too bad. Six years and she's out. Banned from the chamber for life, actually. And the problem isn't just that six years isn't enough time to understand the issues and the process. It's also not long enough to build strong relationships across the aisle, particularly given that a lot of other members will have to leave two or four years after she gets there.

This hypothetical isn't much of a hypothetical, sadly: It's the background for Karen Bass, the speaker of the Assembly, who was elected in 2004. Nor is she unique. The acting president of the Senate secured his seat in 2006 (although he did serve in the Assembly before that).

The product of this verges on the comical. As a California budget-watcher pointed out to me, when you get Arnold Schwarzenegger in a room with the leadership of the Senate and Assembly, Schwarzenegger has the most budget and legislative experience in the room. A guy who was starring in Terminator films as recently as 2003 is now the most seasoned elected official during one of the worst crises California has ever had. Term limits are one of those ideas that sound good in theory but are madness in practice. You wouldn't want to go to a hospital filled with medical residents or stock a sports team with an ever-changing cast of rookies. Legislating is hard. We need to give people time to learn how to do it.

Photo credit: By Anders Debel Hansen/Getty Images via Agence France-Presse

By Ezra Klein  |  January 4, 2010; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  California , Government  
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Comments

The lack of experience is only the minor part of the insanity of term limits. The major part is that your entire set of legislators no longer look to the voters for their livelihood, which is supposed to align their incentives. I don't know whether to fear more whether they'd be corrupt or spotlessly clean ideologues.

I can understand the idea of term limits for a chief executive, who might possess the will and the wherewithal to attempt a grab at lifetime maximum power -- but for legislators, it's fool's gold.

Posted by: TheodoreLittleton | January 4, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Your sports team analogy is actually kind of the reality of NCAA athletics.

Posted by: DJAnyReason | January 4, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

There's a lot of room between six year term limits and the 8 consecutive six year terms Robert Byrd has won. I feel like I'm watching Weekend at Bernie's 3: Capitol Hill. 4-5 consecutive term maximum seems to be a decent balance, would keep blood fresh in the Senate and slightly increase the number of open races, and would be a popular measure in 2010's populist atmosphere.

Posted by: CarlosXL | January 4, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

*It's also not long enough to build strong relationships across the aisle*

That is the point: with few institutional or personal ties to the other legislators, voters can be assured that the legislators will vote according to dictates of their party slate and their campaign funders. You don't want nuance, personal experience, or reality to intrude on duties to serve the Party. The strict term limit system ensures that all the legislators are a simple minded as humanly possible. Another fine result of the proposition system.

Posted by: constans | January 4, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

The term limit example in your post is just as hilarious as no term limits. What is wrong with a 12 year limit (two in the senate and 6 in the house)? If the congressperson is too dumb to understand after 3-4 years, then they need to go any way. And the notion that developing bipartisan relationships is aided by longer terms is laughable. How many long terms congresspersons switched sides in the healthcare fiasco? Having a system that elects feeble (physical and mental) representatives is just plain wrong on so may levels. If 8 years is enough for a president, then 12 to 16 is enough for Congress! Split the baby in half....use some common sense. 2010...Without Doubt, Vote Them Out!

Posted by: my4653 | January 4, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Completely agree with Ezra.

Posted by: tomtildrum | January 4, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Term limits are a bad solution to a real problem -- electoral competitiveness. I read lots of blog posts that claim gerrymandering does not significantly affect polarization. Maybe. But what it does do is create eternal sinecures. Term limits are an attempt to address this issue, failure though they may be. An actual solution would attack the redistricting process, taking it out of the hands of elected officials and establishing an objective procedure and set of rules for creating new districts that takes no regard for partisan composition.

Claims that gerrymandering has nothing to do with polarization are attempts to claim that gerrymandering is not a problem. It is. It just isn't that problem.

Posted by: pj_camp | January 4, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

i have to acknowledge that I did not support Prop. 93, which would have changed term limits to a 12-year limit in any one chamber, in Feb. 2008. Now that a new measure that wouldn't grandfather in everyone already in the legislature is set for the ballot, I may change my vote. But I did have my reasons for voting no on 93. One of the main reasons was that the long-term impact of term limits in California is actually somewhat overblown:

But we're told in all of the advertising and literature that we should really focus on the long term. Never mind the back door for sitting lawmakers, this is about a better and more well-prepared legislature for our future. Well, I hate to break this to everyone, but that statistically doesn't add up. Prop. 140, which set current term limits, passed in 1990. Before that there were no term limits at all. Yet the average length of legislative experience was 10 years. That's actually pretty much what it is today. And the reason is that California has a lot of structural churn in their legislature, and for good reason. You may have noticed that politicians are ambitious folks, and in this state there are simply a great deal more desirable political offices than in any other state. We have the biggest Congressional delegation, we have enormous cities with city and county boards of supervisors that wield tremendous power, and politicians desire those positions. The idea that suddenly all the ambition is going to be boiled out of lawmakers and we're going to be able to bolt them into their seats for 12 years is frankly not borne out by historical precedent. The case of Richard Alarcon is instructive. He was a state Senator who ran for mayor and lost in 2005, then he ran for Assembly in 2006, and after just getting there he ran for LA City Council in 2007. The mayor's office, and LA City Council are very desirable posts, and they drew him out of the legislature. And that's not because of restrictive term limits. I hear a lot of talk about how we are possibly going to lose Sheila Kuehl, my state Senator, from the legislature, and who is going to carry the banner of universal health care, and this is why we need to change term limits. Sheila Kuehl is leaving whether Prop. 93 passes or not. She wants to be on the LA County Board of Supervisors because she wants to be closer to home. Nicole Parra of Bakersfield just announced that she won't run again despite being eligible if Prop. 93 passes [...]

What term limits did accomplish is it got rid of the longtime Willie Brown types, the old hands who steered the legislature in their direction and maintained all the committee chairs through seniority. I don't see how giving Senators one extra term, or 3 in the case of the Assembly, is going to fix that. You're going to have the same legislative churn as ambitious pols seek better positions of prestige, and none of the benefits of a relaxed term limit structure, which is increasing institutional memory.

If you're going to remove term limits, remove them. All that's being offered in place of them in California, however, is a minor tweak that would not do anything to fix the problem of a lack of institutional memory.

Posted by: dday212 | January 4, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

*Without Doubt, Vote Them Out!*

Voters obviously disagree with you, which is why term limits are popular: because people are upset at the choices being made by voters in *other* districts, and term limits are a means of forcing voters to do something they wouldn't do if they were given the choice.

Certainly term limits has not made anything better. So if it isn't an improvement, why should it have been adopted in the first place? I guess it makes people feel better that they're "doing something."

Posted by: constans | January 4, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

One idea I've had is that you could sort of split the difference. Have one body which has high turnover to assure that they stay representative, and the other body full of people who are given ample time to build up their legislative wonkery. The "wonk house" wouldn't even have to be an elected branch of government, but instead be a sort of legislative bureaucracy, where people are able to slowly rise up the ranks from congressional aides to being able to lead the writing of legislation, to give them as much time as possible to build up their skills.

Posted by: usergoogol | January 4, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

That's actually a decent argument. On the other hand, the campaign funding situation is crazy and experienced staffers help a lot with the process, leaving the official to set the high level philosophy and goals. The parties themselves are of course a huge part of the problem. Isn't it time we get a new one?

Posted by: staticvars | January 4, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,
Arkansas was one of the first in the nation to try it. It has been bad. The major problem is that freshmen legislators are putty in the hands of seasoned lobbyists, who know more of what to do and how to do it than the newly-elected reps. Term limits prevent mentors from existing, much less helping new members, allow lobbyists to slip under the radar, and a host of other problems.
One thing, maybe unique to Arkansas, was that several sessions of the Lege had almost zero lawyers or legally-trained professionals. While lawyers might get a bad rap, these are the people who work with the law. It's like a group of lawyers writing about surgical procedure, with no input from surgeons.

Posted by: ctown_woody | January 4, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

In the end, you take out all the accountability and responsiveness out of the electeds lives. This dramatically increases the power of the lobbyists, bureaucracy, and other special interests. All of which are not accountable on Election Day. Also people usually re-elect people they like. If you have problems with the power of incumbency, change how the deck is stacked (public financing, TV time, etc). Term Limits is throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Posted by: jacketpotato | January 4, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse

Much as the Republicans want to bring us back to 1810 (the good old days of small government, poor education, and an average lifespan in the 30s), things are far more complicated, specialized and advanced today, thus experience and long term learning are much more important, and this goes for just about everything including legislating. This phenomena will only increase as the world gets more and more advanced.

What I would add to getting rid of the filibuster (and might require getting rid of the filibuster to pass) is very strong public campaign finance, and a ban, or at least serious limits, on corporate political donations. Now this would make a ginourmous positive difference. At the strategic time in Obama's first or second term he should put everything he has into abolishing the filibuster and then extremely strong campaign finance reform. You want strong action on global warming, on finance reform, on just about anything positive, then you want to do these two things first.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | January 4, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

An additional problem with California's term limits is that professional politicians (and who else will put themselves through the absurd agony that is running for office?) use their limited time in the seats they occupy to line up the next job. That is, term limits add a level of personal anxiety and professional distraction that further erodes attention to doing the job -- legislating.

Posted by: janinsanfran | January 4, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

don't "term limits" limit democracy?

Posted by: jeeze56 | January 4, 2010 8:09 PM | Report abuse

Ezra makes a very good case for a house of lords. The only way to gain expereince is to repeatedly re-elected and to have to not worry about re-elected. Thus, we have the system of very safe districts, very few competitive elections, and the massive power of being an incumbent. Thus, we have a U.S. Senate that functions as a house of lords since few of them have to worry about re-election.

Maybe the real solution is to design a govenment process that is not so complicated and take power away from the professional staffers. If people are in power for decades, they become bigger spenders, more authoritarian, and more wasteful.

Posted by: superdestroyer1 | January 4, 2010 9:34 PM | Report abuse

RichardHSerlin: "What I would add to getting rid of the filibuster (and might require getting rid of the filibuster to pass) is very strong public campaign finance"

Agree completely. It would create more competition. It would expand the kinds of people willing to run for office. It would help dispel the suspicion that elected officials are beholden to special interests that presently fund campaigns. And it would allow elected officials to spend more time doing their jobs instead of raising money.

Term limits represent the abdication of responsibility of a lazy electorate. If people don't want the incumbent, they should pay attention and vote the person out. With term limits, people don't have to pay attention. I don't think that's an improvement. If we want to diminish the power of incumbency, public campaign financing would be a good start. If incumbents still get reelected, maybe just maybe its because their constituents actually think they're doing a satisfactory job.

And as others have pointed out, term limits wind up giving more power to lobbyists, since they become the most experienced people in the room, and to the executive (if only because it reduces the power of the legislature, and that power is going to go somewhere).

Posted by: dasimon | January 4, 2010 10:30 PM | Report abuse

The football analogy doesn't work, as all NCAA sports have term limits. That's precisely why I enjoy NCAA football; every year is a rebuilding year. But football is a game, and congress is not (well, it shouldn't be).

As for Byrd, he has been very good for WV, his constituents. Just drive through my state and you'll find all sorts of public works named after the man. True, most have been pork barrel funded, but tell me you'd turn the money away.

If anything, limiting special interest groups ability to advertise and manipulate during elections would be the most beneficial. How many people didn't vote for Obama as they thought he was foreign born, or Kerry for "swift boating?" If the politicians could make the tough decisions with only their opponents to worry about, they might go through with it. But when these outside groups have the ability to distort the facts and manipulate the gullible public, no important changes will be made.

Posted by: mskidz | January 5, 2010 10:16 AM | Report abuse

I am coming late on this but there are two things.
First, I sympathize with the argument that experience is primordial. However, you seem to assume that before an office term, the politician was not assuming any other public function. Likewise, you seem to assume that after the term, due to term-limit, the politician leaves the public administration in its entirety. Experience could be built in other offices/functions, so I don't really understand your point.

Second, there has been an interesting couple of papers written by Koszner and Stratmann(2000, 2006) about the committee structure in Congress as a way to reduce an imperfect information problem.

The idea is that Political Action Committees cannot pay legislators to represent them. If they could, they would. Because such contracts are not possible/enforceable, the legislator that gets paid by the PAC(e.g. for campaign financing) has no incentive whatsoever to actually defend the interest of the PAC as soon as it gets the money. Likewise, the PAC has no incentive to pay the legislator if the guy defended the PAC interest on one law.

However, we have a repeated game: congressmen can indeed engage in reputation building. Here is why I think it is linked to your post: one problem with term limits is that you hamper reputation building.

One good thing with reputation building is that you correct the information imperfection: if the legislator does not satisfy the PAC requirement once he has been paid, he can't expect the PAC to pay for his/her campaign in the future.

The committee system is good in this sense because it gives more information on the field of interest/influence of a legislator, and also because usually legislators stand in the same committee over time.

Those papers have been written for congress, but I guess some kind of reputation-building might be at stake with governors and state legislatures too

Posted by: PtitSeb | January 6, 2010 5:51 PM | Report abuse

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