The Legislative Shuffle

Thirty-nine members of the Ohio House–Davidson included–will be forced out this year, when the eight-year term limits that voters imposed on members of the state House and Senate in 1992 finally ripen. A full third of the members who would have been termed out this year have already left, snatching the first attractive opportunities to come their way. They’ve got families to feed, and no future in the Ohio House of Representatives. Though just a handful of legislatures have had experience with the reform to date, the full implications of term-limit measures passed in states across the country in the early and mid-’90s are beginning to come into focus, and the results aren’t looking good. Legislators are doing more things that either are of questionable value (career padding) or undermine the political process (partisan infighting); they don’t understand their jobs as well as they used to; instability has become the norm, and inefficiency the result. Members are becoming less collegial, less efficient, and may even be more influenced by the same special interests that term limits were supposed to neutralize. And in Ohio, they’re just bailing out.

Even if you believe it is intrinsically good to shuffle the decks in the legislatures every couple of years, term limits have been, at most, a partial success. If you believe that a capable legislature is necessary to the orderly functioning of a state government, then term limits should give you great cause for worry.

Term limits were what you might call a mood reform. America seems to love experts in everything except for government, and the movement grew out of a visceral sense among voters across the country that the elected “experts” in the legislative process had “lost touch.” People believed that legislators had created an entrenched political class whose principal interest was its own self-perpetuation. Voters saw signs of this estrangement everywhere. In Maine, a government shutdown in 1991 brought about the push for term limits, while a subsequent ballot tampering scandal added momentum; California’s term-limits movement was set in motion in the 1980s by a brutal partisan battle over redistricting.

But the major factor–the one that gave the movement its national scope–was a cluster of scandals that bubbled up in Washington around the turn of the decade. “People got tired of all the abuse going on, especially in Washington, D.C., but also back in their state capitals,” says Stacy Rumenap, a spokeswoman for U.S. Term Limits, the organization that has served as the spiritual godfather of the movement. Voters were inundated with information about corruption in the House of Representatives’ post office and the credit union, about secret pay raises, and even about million-dollar member slush funds that may or may not have existed. One Speaker of the House had resigned in disgrace; the House whip also resigned rather than face an extended inquiry into his finances. After nearly 40 years of one-party control in Congress, this was the clarion call to the voting public. And the rush of state-level initiatives was on.

Beginning in 1990, the ballot measures began blazing across the country. And almost without exception, the voters approved them overwhelmingly. In Florida, term-limit reform passed with more than 76 percent of the vote; reforms passed in Colorado, Missouri, Nevada, and Wyoming by similar margins. The initiatives themselves varied greatly state-to-state. The most extreme initiatives imposed lifetime limits on service. This meant that once you reached full time you were out of the chamber permanently. Voters in four states–Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming–approved initiatives that require legislators to take a “time-out” of at least four years before resuming service. So-called consecutive term limits, which placed limits on the number of years legislators could serve in sequence, were approved in six other states.

Only 18 states have enacted term limits, but the figure is misleading. There are only 24 states with laws that allow voter initiatives on the ballot, and given that legislatures rarely want to impose limits on themselves (only two have ever done so) initiatives are by far the most reliable way to put term limits in place. So, put another way, voters have enacted term limits in three out of every four states where they can realistically do it. (Indeed, U.S. Term Limits has begun to shift its focus to efforts to open the ballots to initiatives in the 26 states that currently don’t allow such measures.) Voters in three additional initiative states–Massachusetts, Nebraska, and Washington–approved term-limit ballot measures that were ultimately overturned by their state Supreme Courts because of state laws that conflicted with the reform’s enactment.

As the term limits have gone into effect during the past years, supporters have already declared the incipient political experiment an unqualified success. “We haven’t seen any evidence of anything bad,” says Rumenap. She gives a quick review of what she described as the successes: Lobbyists are losing power; legislatures are running more efficiently; more–and more diverse–people are running for office. Maine, Rumenap notes, passed its budget on time last year; this was something of a novel occurrence. “There were all these critics who said term limits were going to disrupt these legislatures,” she said. “And that just hasn’t been the case.”

Rumenap’s strongest argument is that seats are opening up and people are running. But even there, it seems that although there is more competition overall under term limits, there’s less for incumbents. Scholars suggest that since would-be candidates know members will be termed out anyway, they have tended to wait their turn. After all, it’s tough to unseat an incumbent under the best of circumstances.

Are there really “citizen legislators” coming in? In California, the number of self-described attorneys –and doctors and farmers, for that matter–is down in both chambers. The number of self-described “legislators” is up, and has reached nearly 50 percent in the Assembly (from 39 percent in 1989) according to a survey by Richard Clucas, a professor at Portland State University in Oregon who has studied the California legislature under term limits. Scholars have an explanation for this. They point out that so-called “gate-keepers”–the elders, officials, and activists who make up the core of political parties–don’t get behind amateurs. They back experienced politicians, people who have paid their dues and cultivated a base.

But the main rebuttal to Rumenap’s arguments is that term limits have made state government less effective. In California, which enacted term limits in 1990, lawmakers with as little as one year of experience are chairing committees; last session the bill passage rate was off a third from where it was when the reform went into effect. In that same session, the governor vetoed an extraordinary one of every five pieces of legislation that actually made it to his desk, and the two chambers exceeded their constitutional deadline for passing their budget bills by an average of 57 days. Meanwhile, the upheaval in the state legislative chambers in California, which set the maximum stay at six years in the State Assembly and eight years in the Senate, has been head-spinning. They have had seven speakers in the last five years, the same number as in the preceding 25. “Under a six-year term limit you’re basically a ‘lame duck’ from the moment you become speaker,” says Karl Kurtz of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

This is what Professor Clucas calls “the new amateur politics.” “You don’t even know where the bathroom is …You may know how to run a campaign, you may know how to run a city council meeting. But you don’t know how decisions are made at that level.”

In Maine, the state’s term limits have created their own unique dynamic. In 1995, the year before term limits went into effect in the legislature, 1,550 bills were referred to committee; by 1999, three years into term limits, the marker was 2,224. The figures on the Appropriations Committee in the House were particularly striking: referrals more than doubled, from 63 in 1995 to 136 in 1999. “What seems to be happening is that incoming legislators appear to be trying to make their mark quickly,” says Matthew C. Moen, a political science professor at the University of Maine who has studied the state’s experience with term limits. “If they aspire to be leaders, they realize they probably only have two or three years to make their mark.”

In other words, ambitious members will spurn the slow acculturation and traditional rites of early legislative service, such as apprenticeship, because delay can cost them in the long run. They’re out of the blocks like a shot. The result in Maine, Moen says, is that committees are now saturated with legislation, and concerns have been raised about the number of duplicate bills–a development that many believe can be chalked up to the inexperience of the incoming legislators who don’t know what’s already out there. To exacerbate matters, the rules in the Maine legislature require committees to report out–favorably or unfavorably–every piece of legislation that is referred to them. But they’re not keeping up: The proportion of bills reported from the committees has declined from 94 percent in 1995, before term limits went into effect, to 87 percent last year and seems to be continuing to decline. The results have been similar across the legislatures where term limits have come into play. And then there are the intangibles. In California and Michigan, which have some of the strictest term limits in the country, political observers have detected a sharp decline in collegiality as new members with little time to make an impression replace long-serving members who took time to cultivate relationships. “They don’t sit down and make the friends they used to make. The coffee doesn’t take time to percolate,” says James M. Penning, a political science professor at Calvin College in Michigan and an expert on that state’s term limits. “Frankly, there’s a lack of trust.”

“The thing that I think troubles a lot of people right now,” Penning added, “is that the House doesn’t seem to be functioning well as a legislative body. The spirit of cooperation that you’d like to see just isn’t there. Nobody is willing to meet other people half way.”

The truth is, for every assumed benefit of term limits–and every victory claimed by its supporters–there is weighty evidence to the contrary developing in legislatures across the country. Proponents of term limits anticipated, for instance, that the reform would make legislators more responsive to constituents by taking away the option of making a career of legislative service. They’ve accomplished that in several states, and now what are people getting? Unresponsive lawmakers. Rebecca A. Tothero of Michigan State University studied the voting habits of term-limited members in the Michigan legislature, and found that their attendance decreased at a “statistically significant rate” in their last year of service. Voting, of course, is the way elected representatives “respond” to their constituents.

In fact, many scholars argue that term limits actually diminish the need of legislators to be responsive by reducing the value of the electoral process that would otherwise be used to keep them in line. John David Rausch Jr., an expert on term limits, says the evidence so far has suggested that term limits put a premium on upward mobility that pits the needs of constituents against the career imperatives of legislators. He notes that GOP lawmakers termed out of the Michigan legislature have filled so many posts in Gov. John Engler’s administration that the party is becoming worried there won’t be jobs waiting for the members who get the boot this year. “We have this vision that a lot of these legislators go back to the plow,” said Rausch, a professor at West Texas A&M University. “Well, they do go back to the plow–but they’re plowing someone else’s field.”

In fact, if you take a step back, you will realize that the proponents of term limits had the premise all wrong: Legislators are more responsive to their constituents when they plan to remain in the legislature. And if you take one step further back, you will realize that the term-limits movement rests on another questionable premise: Legislators owe their careers to the people who vote, not to any Establishment.