( – promoted by jsw)
Disclaimer: I am paid by exactly no-one to advocate for any political position. I’ve heard rumors that certain people would actually pay me to stop.
There’s been a lot of heat, and not as much light as would be ideal, generated around Proposition 93, the ballot initiative to extend (a bit) the current legislative term limits. I have already turned in my absentee ballot, and I voted for Proposition 93, despite its manifest flaws. If you’re interested in why (and my take on those flaws), it’s below the fold.
First, here’s what Prop 93 does, according to the Legislative Analyst (who so recently cast her long and erudite shadow over the proposed health care reform):
Background: The state’s voters passed Proposition 140 at the November 1990 election. As well as other changes, Proposition 140 changed the State Constitution to create term limits for the Legislature-Members of the Assembly and Senate. Term limits restrict the number of years that individuals can serve in the Legislature. Currently, an individual generally cannot serve a total of more than 14 years in the Legislature. (An exception is when an individual serves additional time by finishing out less than one-half of another person’s term.) An individual’s service is restricted to six years in the Assembly (three two-year terms) and eight years in the Senate (two four-year terms).
Time Limits Without Regard to Legislative House. Under this measure, an individual could serve a total of 12 years in the Legislature (compared to 14 years currently). Unlike the current system, these years could be served without regard to whether they were in the Assembly or Senate. In other words, an individual could serve six two-year terms in the Assembly, three four-year terms in the Senate, or some combination of terms in both houses. (As under current law, an individual could serve additional time by finishing out less than one-half of another person’s term.)
Current Members of the Legislature. Under this measure, existing Members of the Legislature could serve up to a total of 12 years in their current legislative house (regardless of how many years were already served in the other house). This could result in some current Members serving longer than 14 years in the Legislature.
So, it’s a pretty moderate change to the current term limits, except that last paragraph with respect to sitting legislators, about which more in a moment. It does remove the incentive for the legislature to play musical chairs every election, and it allows each house of the legislature to develop an institutional memory of a decade or so. This is important to me, as it ties into the reason that I am opposed to term limits for legislatures. Despite all of the badness associated with perpetual incumbency, in my view the alternative is to turn over the entire institutional memory of how you get things done over to unelected staff (and worse) lobbyists. I’ve picked my poison, and I can live with it (and more on that below).
Now, that last paragraph, that’s a doozy, ain’t it? Basically, the people currently sitting in the legislature completely screwed up the politics on this, if they actually wanted to deal with term limits, not just keep their positions. And of course, it’s impossible to to dismiss as an innocent coincidence the fact that both Speaker Nuñez and President pro Tem Perata would be termed out in 2008 after the end of their current terms if Proposition 93 does not pass.
If the legislature had really been serious about changing the landscape on term limits, not just keeping themselves in office, they could have grandfathered sitting legislators into the old system. Or the Speaker and the President Pro Tem as individuals could have publicly disavowed further terms for themselves. But they didn’t. Instead, the legislature elected to follow a path of fairly obvious and politically toxic self-dealing. Ironically (and in my view, stupidly), that may result both in sitting legislators (including the aforementioned legislative leaders) losing their seats and an outcome that places the issue of term limits off limits for several years at least. Well played, gentlemen! Well played indeed.
And I still voted for Proposition 93. Term limits are a crappy idea, for the reasons explained above, and in legislation, you have to cut deals, you have to log-roll. The amusingly perverse situation here is that the interest group with whom you have to cut a deal is the legislature itself. So that’s the deal I think we’re cutting — longer terms for the current legislature in order to build a better institutional memory and stronger legislators.
As a brief coda, let me note that the notion that term limits (or redistricting) are meaningful structural reform is essentially bogus. It’s true that with term limits, you will cycle younger people through legislatures, and their attitudes on social issues in particular will change, but you’re still cycling people into and through a system where money buys campaign success, and when those self-selected people arrive at the legislature, the industry lobbyists run the show. I don’t like that bargain, myself. But people like Howie Rich and the rest of the radical-right funders of US Term Limits do like that bargain, because they want weak legislators and a lobbyist-run legislature.