Friday, May 25, 2012

Could Term Limits Fix Legislatures and Our Broken Congress?

In light of California’s penchant for over-regulation and the state’s annual budget crisis, it’s hard to make the case that the United States Congress should look to Sacramento for an example of effective government.

There is one guiding tenet California has adopted though that may be worth replicating at the national level– term limits for legislators.

California is one of fifteen states to mandate maximum term limits for state-level Senators and Assemblymen. With the approval of a 1990 ballot measure, voters in California limited state legislators to serving a maximum of two four-year terms in the Assembly and three two-year terms in the Senate, for a total of 14 years in the legislature.

On June 5, Californians will determine if those limitations will be amended when they cast their votes on Proposition 28, a ballot measure that would limit legislative careers to a total of 12 years, but that would allow politicians to spend their entire time in either, or both, of the state houses.

Seemingly legitimate arguments have been made both for and against Proposition 28.

Supporters of Prop 28 include groups like California’s League of Women Voters and California Common Cause, a nonpartisan citizens' lobby organization. Proponents of the measure arguethat the current system, which requires more experienced lawmakers to change legislative houses in order to continue their careers, forces politicians to spend too much time running for office, limiting their ability to focus on providing quality governance.

Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, also notes that the high rate of turnover among legislators caused by the current term limits system leaves a perpetual crop of rookie lawmakers vulnerable to the superior experience and tactics of powerful corporate and industrial lobbyists.

Opponents of Proposition 28, citizens like Anita Anderson of the group Californians for Term Limitsassert that the new rules are “deceptive and misleading” and are nothing more than “a sneaky way of increasing the terms.”

To the degree that Prop 28 simplifies the re-election process for politicians who would no longer have to switch legislative bodies and districts in mid-career, this claim may hold true.

But, given that the proposed new rules strictly and specifically reduce the maximum number of allowable years of service from 14 to 12, the opposition claim that Prop 28 softens term limits rings absolutely false.

Opponents declare that Prop 28 makes bogus claims to strengthen term limits, while supporters assert their intent is simply to fix a broken system. In reality, the differences in the current and proposed term limits are fairly subtle. Additionally, the new proposal contains built-in safeguards that prohibit any current officeholder from leveraging the new term limit rules to extend his or her legislative tenure.

If Proposition 28 passes, there is considerable potential upside to be found in building a more experienced and knowledgeable legislature, and with the additional safeguards to prevent abuse of the new rules, there seems to be every reason for Californians to vote YES on Proposition 28.

If a system of well thought out term limits is right for politicians in California (and the legislatures of 15 other states), why then wouldn’t it be right for the United States Congress?

According to the group U.S. Term Limits, 78% of Americans already favor the idea of limiting congressional terms. With congressional approval ratings hovering near 14%, it’s clear that a vast majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the status quo. If Americans want a different result, we have to be willing to try different ideas, like term limits.

Most Americans agree that the biggest obstacles to Congressional effectiveness, not unlike the challenges state legislatures face, relate to the excessive influence of special interests, partisan gridlock, and the all-consuming focus on campaigning. While term limits wouldn’t eliminate these obstacles, they could certainly mitigate them.

The influence of lobbyists, while often troublesome, cannot and should not disappear. Each geographic and cultural population has its own unique industries, challenges, and needs, and sometimes, those interests are best represented by unelected third parties.

The challenge is that lobbyists and their money are extraordinarily difficult to regulate without impinging on fundamental political rights and freedoms.

With congressional term limits, which would force an occasional “changing of the political guard,” Americans could enjoy the benefits of lobbying, while mitigating the long-term influence of special interests over key congressional players, without doing unnecessary harm to first amendment freedoms.

Partisan gridlock also inhibits congressional progress on both core and secondary national issues. With career politicians who are firmly entrenched in leadership and committee roles, politics becomes more a function of connections than compromise.

By limiting the terms of members of congress, the best leaders still rise to the top, but they are less likely to hold positions of power long enough to enable them to strangle important pieces of legislation and leave them dying on committee tables. With fewer power overlords, the political environment is more conducive to the kind of debate, negotiation, and compromise that produces quality legislation.

Lastly, with no term limits in place, career politicians are compelled to spend enormous chunks of time worrying about the next campaign. This constant focus on re-election drains time, energy, and money from a legislator’s actual assigned task – representing the interests of his or her constituency.

With term limits, lawmakers know from the start that their time is limited, and so their motivation and focus remain sharp. When political self-preservation is no longer a top priority, governance can be.

The state of California should be applauded for implementing a system of term limits, and just as importantly, for evaluating and working to improve that system. And if term limits are right for California and 14 other states, not to mention for the office of the Presidency, then they are likely the right for the nation’s Congress too.

If the U.S. House and Senate were highly functional governing bodies, perhaps I would feel differently, but with a mounting record of dismal failures, many of which can be directly attributed to the undue influence of special interests, long-term gridlock, and misplaced priorities, limiting congressional terms can only make things better.

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