Commentary

Political Arrogance Without Limit

By Patrick Basham
January 22, 2003

At a time of economic disquiet and impending war, the Republican House majority began the 108th Congress by passing a motion to revoke the eight-year term limit on serving as House speaker. Columnist David Broder claims this telling act of political arrogance “represents an acknowledgement on the part of Republicans that running government is a serious business in which experience counts.” But most Americans “outside the beltway” apparently view things differently.

Voters, for instance, continue to support term limits because they recognize that experience “running government” is merely beltway code for a legislative career spent supporting a larger, more intrusive role for government in people’s lives and the accumulation of taxpayer-subsidized political advantages to make one’s own electoral defeat a highly unlikely occurrence. (How much “experience” does one need to spend other people’s money?)

However, term limits’ opponents maintain that extended legislative service is essential to understanding the highly complex legislative process. As many state legislatures adopted term limits over the past decade, there were predictions of a significant rise in the influence of the remaining tenured actors — the bureaucrats, the lobbyists, and the legislative staffers — who would run institutional rings around the rookie state legislators.

Has the alleged loss of knowledge and experience dealt a devastating blow to the term-limited state legislatures? Evidence to date suggests that the predictions at the state level were inaccurate and the fears of critics are unwarranted at the federal level.

The critics’ claim that the legislative process takes many years to master is less an indictment of inexperienced legislators than it is an indictment of the legislative process. The workings of America’s federal and state legislatures are far more complex than is necessary.

Arguably, many of the states are better off without some of this vaunted experience. After all, legislatures are not the only place to gain useful experience. The private sector experience that many are bringing to term-limited state legislatures may prove more valuable for the general welfare.

Political experience is also no guarantor of staff-free effective legislating. In non-term limited professional legislatures, federal and state, most laws are written by staff members, not by the politicians. In practice, the more senior the legislator, the more dependent he is likely to be on his staff.

Term-limited legislators are more likely to have a fresh outlook. There is a growing body of evidence that term-limited legislatures perform the state’s business more efficiently than non-term-limited legislatures. Prior to term limits, California’s state Senate was referred to as “the geriatric ward of California.” Now, California’s legislature works more quickly than before term limits were put into practice.

There also appears to be less rubber-stamping of legislation in a term limits environment. For example, before term limits nearly all bills reported out of Maine’s legislative committees carried unanimous support; under term limits, however, the proportion of unanimous reports fell to 70 percent.

Elsewhere, the introduction of an arguably higher quality, more richly experienced, and more diverse pool of candidates and legislators has led to an infusion of new blood and ideas. Political scientist Jovan Trpovski’s research on Michigan’s term limited legislature indicates that the new legislators exhibit more energy and enthusiasm than did their predecessors.

According to The Detroit News’ B.G. Gregg, in Michigan, “the volume of measures enacted into law…surprised many observers who feared a House with so many newcomers would be slow to act as rookies took their time getting up to speed.” Most recently, Florida’s newly term-limited legislature handled a constitutional crisis, passed election-reform legislation, and generally performed without serious error or mistake.

There are also indications that a new relationship may be developing between inexperienced legislators and their constituents. Political scientists find that those lawmakers elected after the passage of term limits legislation spend more time communicating with their constituents and attending meetings in their district than did their veteran peers during the course of the same legislative session.

Term limits’ proponents always saw the potential institutional effects of term limits as highly important. The primary goal was to change the political culture within the legislative environment. In that vein, term limits are changing the face of state legislatures, breaking up the political class, and injecting new ideas into the political mainstream. Furthermore, the faster turnover of legislators is weakening the relationship between careerist politicians and the lobbyists employed by special interest groups.

Eight years ago, congressional Republicans saw the virtues of term-limiting their speaker. Having gained power, Republicans have changed their minds about term limits. But that doesn’t change reality. Term limits are good for American democracy.

Patrick Basham is a senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.