I believe that being a representative of the people requires remaining one of the people, which is impossible as an isolated member of a permanent political class. I believe in a legislature where new people bring in new ideas, and where legislators leave before coming to believe they are entitled to their positions. I believe that power corrupts.
And because of that, I’m in favor of term limits.
The new report by the Center for Governmental Studies, “Citizen Legislators or Political Musical Chairs: Term Limits in California,” makes some common arguments against term limits, but I still find them unpersuasive.
I mean, let’s be clear what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about 6 years in the Assembly and 8 in the Senate for a maximum of 14 years in the legislature. This is not an insignificant amount of time. In the private sector executives are expected to learn their new company and make an impact within a year or two.
I think it’s a good thing that term limits prevents us from having another long time legislative leader like Willie Brown (he served 30 years in the Assembly, 15 as Speaker!). I can’t believe the CGS report held up as a good thing the days when 5 or 6 individuals in legislative leadership got together to make decisions and hand out coveted chairmanship positions. That’s certainly not my idea of democracy. It sounds more like an oligarchy. No thanks.
Most importantly to me, term limits are vital to reducing the power of corporate special interests. In this recent Lost Angeles Times article about the new CGS report, business and labor advocates complain about how tired they are of teaching new legislators about the issues year after year. No surprise, it seems they would rather cultivate a longstanding relationship with a permanently ensconced legislator upon whom they can rely, trading on decades of past favors and gifts, rather than facing new legislators every term who have new and critical minds. The sheer fact of opposition from these powerful and moneyed forces is the best argument for term limits to be found!
I mean, imagine California without term limits. It would look like the mess that is Congress. We’d have legislators who stay in office for decades, moving permanently to Sacramento, getting cozy with the lobbyists, building long-term relationships for mutual profit, and trading votes with the same legislators year after year. A legislature already paralyzed would be positively ossified. It would be a ruling class, unable to lead and out of touch with regular people or the world outside of Sacramento. And because incumbents have an easier time winning, a legislator could stay in office indefinitely (or at least until they posted inappropriate pictures on the internet). The advantage an incumbent wields in any reelection attempt is inordinately high, even in these tumultuous political times (every single incumbent state Senator or Assembly member running in 2010 won reelection).
The polarized, partisan mess we find in the recent crop of state legislators does not argue for term limits so much as for a purging. Keeping a group like this around longer surely could not improve California’s fate.