Now They Tell Us Term Limits Was A Mistake

Back in 1990, after 10 years of Willie Brown outfoxing Republicans and preventing the state from collapsing as the right-wing intended in 1978 with the passage of Prop 13, California conservatives decided they needed another solution to break Democratic power.

Brown had just stopped an effort by the so-called “Gang of Five” – moderate Democrats who threatened to bring down Speaker Brown, including Gary Condit – in 1988, and with Brown having high approval ratings in his San Francisco district, Southern California conservatives placed Proposition 140 on the November 1990 ballot, to limit the terms of all legislators (including Congress).

It passed by a narrow margin, and by 1995 it had started to produce its intended purpose – Willie Brown left to run for mayor of San Francisco, and by the end of the decade, the accumulated experience of the legislature began to erode, as elections became a game of musical chairs, and the legislature became a kind of graduate school for politicians who were always seeking the equivalent of a tenure-track job – a non-term limited elected office.

The results of term limits have been extremely destructive. Legislators focus on the short-term and show little interest in long-term solutions. It takes about 5 or 6 years to fully understand the state budget process, by which point a new Assemblymember is on their way out or too focused on finding their next elective office. Institutional knowledge is left with legislative staff and lobbyists instead of the people who were elected by the voters to represent them.

After 20 years, it’s become clear to almost everyone that term limits has been a failure. And now, in a San Jose Mercury News article, conservatives themselves are finally admitting the error:

“Of all the mistakes I’ve made in public life, the one I regret most is advocating for term limits for the Legislature,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, a leading conservative figure in California who was one of a small number of incumbent legislators who backed the term limits measure two decades ago. “It has harmed the institution badly.”…

Robert Naylor, a Republican Assembly leader in the mid-1980s and former state GOP chairman, said shorter terms have made lawmakers increasingly unwilling to even consider proposals that are opposed by what he called the parties’ “anchor tenants” – for Democrats, unions and trial lawyers; for Republicans, the Chamber of Commerce and anti-tax groups…

Jim Brulte is another one-time term limits fan who’s had a change of heart. A former Republican leader in both the Assembly and Senate, he said term limits fundamentally altered the dynamic between special interests and legislators, especially legislative leaders. And not for the better.

“When I was Republican leader in the Assembly, special interests needed me,” Brulte said. “Today, the leadership in the Legislature needs the special interests.”

The article suggests that there has been an increase in bills sponsored by “special interests” since term limits took effect. Obviously we have to be careful whenever we see the term “special interests” thrown around – those “special interests” often are the working people of California, and there’s a world of difference between a labor union seeking better working conditions and a fairer economy and the California Chamber of Commerce that’s always looking for ways to hoard wealth and impoverish everyone else.

But the overall point is clear: term limits destroyed what had once been seen as the nation’s best state legislature. What began as a spite initiative pushed by right-wingers who saw they were losing their grip on California has become a reckless policy that leaves 36 million people without good representation and without an effective government.

The occasion of the Mercury News article was the qualification of a term limits reform proposal that would allow legislators to serve 12 years in either house, but would not protect current legislators as Prop 93 had. It’s not clear which ballot this new proposal will be on – if it’s on either the presidential primary ballot or the June 2012 primary ballot, I’m not sure it will succeed. If it’s on the November 2012 ballot, it has a strong chance of success.

Perhaps it might have a better shot at passage in the earlier elections in 2012 if more conservatives spoke out in support of it. And while Tom McClintock’s support is useful, the fact remains that the real powers in the California Republican Party – the Howard Jarvis Association, the California Chamber of Commerce, and Grover Norquist – all strongly support the current term limits rules, as it helps guarantee their power over the state GOP.

It’s nice that some of these right-wingers recognize their mistake, even if it’s 20 years too late. But we’re going to have to mount a bigger, stronger campaign against the right if term limits are to be successfully reformed, our legislature fixed, and California’s government made democratic and effective once again.

10 thoughts on “Now They Tell Us Term Limits Was A Mistake”

  1. On Ballotpedia, we’re working on an overview of the impact of term limits on 2010’s state senate elections.  It’s purely a numerical, state-by-state breakdown with the numbers by state, and the differential impact on the parties by state and overall but it might be of interest.

    The Michigan State Senate is losing 75% of its current members this year because of term limits.

    55 Democratic state senators and 66 Republican state senators are terming out this year.  

  2. term limits were a mistake, and they need to be junked, period. the difference between two terms and three seems utterly irrelevant, if the general revolving door + permanent lobbyist/staff system remains intact.

  3. Robert, don’t you think term limits, for all their faults, can accelerate progress? Do you really think same-sex marriage would have passed the legislature at the same point in time, if there’d been no term limits?

    Look at NY. Their Legislature has no term limits, and, as a result, Republicans held a majority of the Senate, because their incumbents held seats in districts that turned overwhelmingly-democratic long ago.

    It’s also not very encouraging when incumbents never lose. The only loss in recent history – hundreds of contests – was the Leno v. Migden contest, which probably never would have happened, if not for term limits. Term limits seem to be the only thing keeping voters engaged in choosing their state representatives- legislative elections with incumbents, aren’t real elections. We all know this. Look even at the Winograd-Harman contest. Winograd put up such a strong and energetic fight, but couldn’t move the dial. Harman can have her seat for as long as she wants it.

    I could agree that there ought to be a change with term limits, that appreciates and preserves institutional experience, but why have the latest reforms been to copy the Oklahoma model? (Oklahoma is the only state where Obama didn’t win a single county. There wasn’t even a single county where McCain got less than 55%. Oh, yea, and they think it’s wrong to teach evolution.). What’s wrong with keeping separate term limits, so that better legislators can have longer careers than others? Why should those with the longest legislative careers be ones with nothing better to do? (If we adopt the Oklahoma model, everyone could serve 12 years, and the only ones who won’t will be those who find more-desirable opportunities).

    Why don’t we just abolish term limits for the State Senate, and leave them at 3 terms for the Assembly- One body for unlimited institutional experience and one body for the acceleration of progress. Senate seats would be coveted, so probably only the best of the best Assemblymembers would get those seats, and they’d be able to stay there forever. Sounds great to me!

  4. I agree term limits are a mistake and I’d rather see them repealed, Not extended, Term Limits are wrong and voting to extend something that is wrong does not make It right, It just means one is in the door longer than before. I’d rather go back to Government that wasn’t broken, Before term limits were invoked, Instead of kowtowing to the far right lunatics…

  5. With all due respect, if Robert doesn’t want to respond to my substantive comment, I should get to post my guess of his internal thoughts that I believe he decided to keep to himself.

    Here it is:

    Fine, the Oklahoma model is stupid, but it’s the only way to extend term limits while pretending to shorten them – we can say we’re reducing total permissible service from 14 years to 12 (nevermind that under today’s law, it’s mathematically impossible for more than three-eighths of legislators to serve more than 10 years, and Oklahoma’s model enables 100% to serve 12 years). And sure, same-sex marriage and other progressive issues would have had to wait longer to prevail in our Legislature if not for term limits, and term limits would help accelerate progress on other things, but I’m sick of so much of Democrats’ resources going into expensive primaries for open Assembly Seats, and that’s just more important to me. Plus, it’s a pain to always have to buddy up to new legislators, after investing in relationships with ones who are getting termed out – I don’t even appreciate, so much, that democrats actually picked up a few seats, in 2008, from Republicans who were termed out. And Tom, maybe you’re idea is nice – keeping one body term limited to make sure the populous’s progress on social issues is reflected in the Legislature, while having non-limited highly-highly coveted senate seats that would stay filled by superstars like Kuehl and Leno, but the campaigns in such high-stakes elections could get really costly, and create more party in-fighting. And you see, the fact that incumbents never lose is a good thing, because it frees them up from their constituents and enhances the clout of people, with above-average influence, like myself. So yea, I’m going to have to support Oklahoma’s asinine term limits scheme for reasons, I’d rather not disclose.


    Feel free to correct anything, I may have gotten wrong.

  6. I’m realizing that last post may have been out of line. I actually wasn’t trying to be offensive (though, in reading that, it looks impossible that it wasn’t trying to be offensive). Maybe I’m too candid when I decide to write things at 2am.

    Of course, this isn’t to say that that’s along the lines of what I think you were thinking. I’m just thinking that it was probably out of line to post that. And, that it’s probably pretty schmucky to think that prefacing with “with all due respect” gives license to write something disrespectful. Sorry.

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