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Holding My Nose for Term Limits: They’re Lazy and Misguided, but They Would Also Solve a Real Problem PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Guest Commentaries
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 04 September 2014 09:39

Bruce Rauner changed my mind on term limits. Probably not in the way he intended, but given my longstanding dislike of them, it’s still quite an accomplishment.

The Republican nominee for Illinois governor has a television ad promoting term limits in which he pings his November opponent, Governor Pat Quinn. “A half-million people signed petitions to put term limits on the [November 2014] ballot,” Rauner says. “Illinois voters overwhelmingly support term limits: Democrats, Republicans, and independents. But Pat Quinn, Mike Madigan, and the Springfield crowd don’t care what you think. They’ll say or do anything to keep power. They let term limits get kicked off the ballot, but come November, it’s our turn to kick them out of office.”

It’s a smart play to emphasize support for an ever-popular reform – and also disingenuous beyond the vague claim of “let[ting] term limits get kicked off the ballot.” Quinn has been a proponent of term limits for decades. And the June court ruling – which higher courts have let stand – removing the referendum from the ballot cited an Illinois Supreme Court decision from 1994, which dealt with a similar term-limit initiative by ... Pat Quinn.

But it was the Madigan reference in Rauner’s ad that got me thinking – and got me re-thinking term limits.

Neither Illinois nor Iowa has term limits for state officials, and there are no term limits for members of Congress.

The results are easy to see.

When he retires next year, Iowa U.S. Senator Tom Harkin will have served in the legislative body for 30 years.

Chuck Grassley is in his sixth term representing Iowa in the U.S. Senate.

Illinois U.S. Senator Dick Durbin served seven terms in the U.S. House before being elected to the upper chamber in 1996 – another three-decade-plus veteran of Congress.

Beyond Congress, Terry Brandstad is currently seeking his sixth term as Iowa governor. Jim Thompson served four terms as Illinois governor.

And Michael Madigan? He has been a member of the Illinois House of Representatives for my entire life – 44 years and counting.

At heart, term-limit initiatives are attempts to restore some semblance of a citizen (as opposed to professional) legislature. The hope is that elected officials would serve a short time and return to private life.

But measured against that goal, term limits are almost sure to fail. As a 2004 Public Policy Institute of California research brief noted, that state’s term limits didn’t change the type of person elected to office: “Rather than representing a new breed of ‘citizen legislator,’ ... new members after term limits behave a great deal like their precursors. Many have local-government experience and run for another office – for an Assembly or a Senate seat – when their terms expire. Careerism remains a constant in California politics.” (On the other hand, the brief said, term limits “accelerated trends of increasing female and minority representation that were already underway in California.”)

Put simply, although term limits by definition turn over membership in legislative bodies, they don’t change the culture of professional politicians. The names may change, but ... .

Still, there would be a happy byproduct of the churn – preventing a single person from gathering enough power to dominate a legislature.

Despite what Rauner suggests, there’s a larger problem with Illinois politics at the state level than career politicians. It’s one particular career politician whose blessing is essential to just about any legislation. Madigan has been House speaker for nearly 30 years; he ascended to the position in 1983 and has held it continuously except for a two-year period of Republican rule in the 1990s.

Regardless of how one feels about the wisdom of a “citizen legislature,” Madigan’s stranglehold on the legislative process goes against the core principle of representative government, that citizens through their legislators should have an actual voice in governance. Our lawmaking bodies ought to be decentralized, with all members having roughly equal say in what happens in a legislative chamber. A true citizen legislature is likely unattainable in today’s political culture – with or without term limits – but the concentration of influence epitomized by Madigan is antithetical to the even-more-basic concept of representation for all.

Obviously, term limits would eliminate that specific instance of power concentration by forcing Madigan out of the Illinois House. And there’s little doubt that his longevity in the legislature is one essential contributing factor to his nicknames as the Velvet Hammer and the Real Governor of Illinois.

So even though term limits are an inferior – and overly broad – substitute for deeper electoral reform, they would eventually rid our governments of the Michael Madigans of the world.

And given Madigan’s death grip on Illinois politics, they shouldn’t be dismissed just because they don’t quite do what they’re supposed to.

Band-Aids for Systemic Ills

I have plenty of problems with term limits.

• Because they don’t discriminate, term limits throw conscientious legislators out with the power-hungry careerists – and don’t allow voters to make that distinction at the ballot box.

• They get rid of legislative expertise.

• The loss of expertise and experience can result in undue deference to executive agencies. As the Public Policy Institute of California brief stated, a post-term-limits legislature “is less likely to alter the governor’s budget, and its own budget process neither encourages fiscal discipline nor links legislators’ requests to overall spending goals. In addition, legislative oversight of the executive branch has declined significantly.”

• They encourage short-sighted legislative thinking. Term-limited legislators might say: A decade from now, the mess I created will be somebody’s else problem.

More than anything, however, term limits are a lazy, knee-jerk solution to the problem of career politicians, because the easiest way to kick the bums out is to vote them out.

But consider this massive disconnect. Since May 2011, monthly Gallup polls have consistently found approval ratings for Congress in the teens, topping 20 percent in only one month in the past three-plus years. Yet more than 90 percent of House and Senate members seeking re-election won in 2012. In the Tea Party wave of 2010, roughly 85 percent of members of Congress seeking re-election won – despite approval ratings for Congress in the low 20s in October.

So the deep frustration that people have with Congress is in direct opposition to their tendency to re-elect incumbents.

What’s going on here?

Some of it is almost certainly the difference between “Congress” and “my member of Congress”; one can hate the institution as a whole but still like one’s elected representative.

But there are also structural causes at work: a system rigged by incumbents to benefit incumbents – thick insulation from the dissatisfaction of voters.

There’s the system dominated by two parties that almost always presents voters with a false binary choice.

Redistricting processes favor incumbents, and far too often create “safe” districts in which the winning party is practically preordained.

The combination of the two-party system and gerrymandering effectively reduces the binary choice to no choice at all in many districts.

The natural benefits of incumbency include name recognition, established fundraising infrastructures, relationships with people and industries that contribute lots of money, the ability to mail de facto campaign literature under the guise of “official business,” and the goodwill generated by government money flowing into legislative districts.

And restrictive ballot-access laws make it difficult for independent and third-party candidates to present voters with alternatives to establishment candidates on Election Day.

There are certainly ways to address all those ills, but term limits have a distinct advantage over all of them: They’re simple and intuitive, and thus more likely to garner fervent public support.

As a contrast, consider redistricting reform. An effort to change the Illinois redistricting process through a constitutional amendment was also kicked off the November ballot, but the ruling judge indicated some future version of it might pass constitutional muster. Yet the reality is that its arcane and byzantine nature would make it a tough sell for voters – even though it would be a far more substantial reform to Illinois government.

Everybody understands term limits, on the other hand. The irony of the term-limit effort in Illinois is that the state Constitution doesn’t allow a citizen-led constitutional amendment on the issue. That means the legislature would need to enact term limits, which of course is against its members’ self-interest.

But the issue will not go away, and grudgingly and slowly I’m climbing on board. Perhaps a loud, sustained, and widespread call for term limits will eventually bear fruit in the Illinois legislature and elsewhere across the country.

Term limits cannot by themselves address larger problems stemming from redistricting, the influences of lobbyists and political money, the advantages of incumbency, and the two-party system. But redistricting, the influences of lobbyists and political money, the advantages of incumbency, and the two-party system are huge barriers to the ideas of citizen legislatures and even the actual representation of constituents.

So as much as term limits are Band-Aids for systemic ills in the American political system, they might be the only practical remedy to which citizens have reasonable access.


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