Sunday, September 25, 2011

Term Limits not Enough to Reform California

Voters of the State of California approved term limits (Proposition 140 in 1990). They hoped to break up a system where politicians treated seats in the California State Government, in the State Assembly and the State Senate, as permanent possessions. In the old system incumbents were able to acquire so much money from special interest groups that they simply outspent any opposition. The hope of the term limit reformers was that rotating politicians would be more responsible, less corrupt politicians. Politicians were limited to three two year terms in the California State Assembly and two four year terms in the State Senate.

Twenty years later it is fair to call the experiment a failure. It is not that term limits are bad in themselves, although they have some clear negative consequences. The problem is the special interest group money just flowed right into the new system and adapted to it.

The main negative consequence of term limits is that by the time a new Assembly person has learned the system, the three terms have been blown. Every election one-third of Assembly members are new. True, most have held office before, usually on city councils or county boards of supervisors, but being in a statewide Assembly with 80 members is a very different situation than being on a far-smaller board or council. To go for the full six years, members have to run two more elections, so they typically spend more time running for office than conducting public business. Confronted with so complex a situation, members typically just follow their party leadership on most issues. The legislative staff, which is more permanent and has more expertise on issues, ends up with more power to shape legislation than it should.

Term limits have not resulted in the ideal of citizen-elected officials doing their best to serve the general public. They have created a career path. After an initial period holding local office the next step is usually a bid for the State Assembly when the incumbent is termed out. Then, since there are only 40 state senators, two state assembly members go to war for the open seat when their state senator is termed out. If the timing requires waiting, an appointment to a highly-paid seat on a state board can fill the interval, or perhaps a year of highly paid lobbying. The pol lucky enough to get the state senate seat has an eight year career. Occasionally a pol does the senate seat first, then the assembly seat. After 14 years in the legislature few politicians go back to a local office, as the term-limit reformers had hoped. They may run for a seat in Congress, but there are no term limits on Congress, so those seats do not come up often. Instead there is a generous state pension and more consulting, legal, or lobbying work. For those who can stand or avoid the whining of constituents, it is a lucrative prestigious career.

The Center for Governmental Studies report, Citizen Legislatures or Political Musical Chairs, analyzes the detailed results of term limits. Term limits did accelerate the entry of Latinos into the state legislature, but seemed to be of minimal help in changing gender balance. Before term limits only 28% of members of the Assembly had served in local government before reaching the Assembly. In 2010 68% had. In 1990 68% of the State Senators had served in the Assembly; in 2010 92% had. After being termed out of the State Senate 30% of its members retired, 40% continued to work in the public sector, and 30% took work in the private sector.

Term limits exist within the context of a highly class-stratified society with a well-lubricated system of political donations supporting two major political parties that, between them, have crippled state government in the past decades.

If the goal is to prevent the entrenchment of individuals, term limits work well. But they offer no obstacles to organizations, whether they interest groups (ranging from public employee unions to business corporation trade groups) or political parties.

Proposition 14, which potentially makes political parties more important, will go through a similar test. It was designed to promote moderation, but that moderation is still likely to be trapped in the Democratic-Republican stranglehold.

California Democracy would like to see a modification of term limits, perhaps allowing for up to ten years service in the State Assembly. However, the main reform needed is cultural. As long as the vast majority of voters pay little or no attention to what their elected officials do after they assume office, those politicians will legislate for special interests, not the general good.