Term Limits

TERM LIMITS….When Newt Gingrich engineered the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, one of the changes he made was to limit the terms of House committee chairs. Instead of allowing them to run independent fiefdoms that lasted essentially forever, Gingrich put the chairs under the control of the House leadership and limited their terms to six years. Democrats have decided to keep this reform in place, and Nicholas Beaudrot wants to know why:

Okay, goo-goos, explain this one to me: why are term limits for committee chairs a good thing? Senators and Congressmen are busy people, and it can take a good 3-5 years to build up a lot of expertise in certain areas. I’m not sure if it was caused by term limits or seniority, but Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) was moved from some Health related committee to the Intelligence committee, and it’s been … challenging for him [though he seemed to get his footing in the months before the midterms]. And I’m sure the various Cali bloggers (Ezra, Kevin, et al.), as well as those from Colorado and perhaps other states, can attest to the damage term limits have caused in their state legislatures.

(“Cali” again? Sheesh.)

There’s not much question in my mind that term limits have been a disaster for the California legislature. Nicholas is right: six years is simply too short a time to build up expertise, and the net result has been to give lobbyists and permanent staffers even more influence than they had in the past. After all, if you don’t know your brief that well, who else are you going to turn to for advice?

But that doesn’t mean I’m opposed to term limits. The old-style barons who ruled their committees for decades at a time are hardly a model to emulate. What puzzles me, though, is the length of most term limits: six years. Why does that seem to be such a popular figure? For my money, it takes three or four years for a committee chair (or legislator) to get good at their job, and they ought to then have seven or eight years to ply their trade. In other words, why not term limits of 10-12 years? It would prevent people from making careers out of their seats, but it would still allow them time to learn how to do their jobs effectively.

For my money, that’s what Nancy Pelosi should have pushed for: keeping the term limits in place but extending them to ten years or so. And needless to say, the time to do it is now, not in 2012….