THE POLITICAL landscape is always evolving. Sometimes violently (as with 9/11 or Watergate), other times gradually, through shifting demographics or economic change. Dogmas come, dogmas go, political winds shift back and forth, tossing us about.
About 20 years ago, the notion of term limits for officeholders became dogma for the center-right. Voters wanted to punish self-dealing politicians by eliminating their permanency. Career politicians out, citizen politicians in! Or so the idea went.
Fourteen years have passed since California voters approved legislative term limits, restricting Assembly members to a trio of two-year terms and state senators to two four-year stints.
I have always been a loyal conservative supporter of term limits -- not as any kind of fundamental prerequisite for a healthy democracy, but more as a suitably blunt instrument to correct the arrogance of elected officials not mindful enough of those who elected them. Public service, I reasoned, should be an avocation, not a permanent vocation. And the public interest would be protected by preventing the development of entrenched, powerful political dynasties, such as Willie Brown’s marathon 14-year rule of the Assembly.
But after 16 years of working in California politics, I’ve changed my mind. We were wrong. Term limits haven’t delivered what we hoped for. They have, in fact, harmed the public interest.
For starters, they have done little to eliminate the permanent political class. Today’s legislators, from whichever party, are all too often ex-staffers or relatives of the politicians the limits uprooted from office. (Six direct relatives of term-limited Assembly members ran last month for the vacated seats, though this time only two of them won.) The goal of creating a true “citizen” Legislature has gone unrealized.
Term limits also have led to a revolving door of Assembly speakers who are so temporary and beholden to the special interests that helped put them in power that at times they function without complete authority. While eliminating its evils, we didn’t fully account for the virtues of an imperial speakership.
For example, just look at last year, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger attempted to negotiate his reform agenda with the Legislature and avoid a contentious special election. The Assembly has a dynamic and charismatic leader in Fabian Nunez, who I believe genuinely wants to accomplish great things for California, and who knows that we have a broken budget system that needs to be fixed. Yet, for those of us close to those negotiations, it was clear that Speaker Nunez did not have the ultimate authority to sign off on a deal. The ultimate power resided with the California Teachers Assn.
This is not a criticism of the speaker but an indictment of our system. It’s difficult to imagine Brown having to bow to an interest group. A strong speakership is good for the state, but it can’t exist under term limits. Outside interest groups -- business, labor, trial lawyers, doctors -- are more powerful now than before.
This situation is exacerbated by noncompetitive legislative districts. When 90% of legislators are immune from voters in a general election, it should come as no surprise that the citizens are easily forgotten under the Capitol dome.
To launch a political career, one must simply win a primary election. Primary campaigns in each party have become the new battleground between interest groups, which can get more for their dollars because the electorate is smaller. Freshly minted legislators often feel they owe their careers to whichever interest group funded their first successful race.
We know from the fairly drawn state legislative districts of the 1990s that requiring roughly 25% of the seats to be competitive will give us a Legislature that more accurately reflects California.
The proof is in how Brown was finally displaced as speaker after the 1994 elections. Although one motivation for term limits was to get rid of Brown, it was competitive seats and a new GOP majority that took Brown’s name off the speaker’s door before term limits could get him.
The real reform that we need is redistricting. Politicians from both parties raised millions of dollars to defeat Schwarzenegger’s ballot initiative last year, but Democratic leaders promised to work with the governor to pass new legislation this year.
If that means also abolishing or at a minimum extending term limits, then Schwarzenegger and the Republicans should take that deal. It would be a win-win. We need competitive legislative races, and it is high time to admit that term limits haven’t worked.