In 1990, conservatives fought successfully for the passage of Proposition 140, which imposed a lifetime limit of three 2-year terms in the Assembly, and two 4-year terms for state Senators and constitutional officers. It was hailed as a victory for conservative governance, but it is time for conservatives to acknowledge the sad reality that California’s two-decade experiment with legislative term limits is a failure.
The legislature in 1990 was dominated by entrenched incumbents who had been in office for eons. One state senator was a New Deal Democrat – literally. Term limits were a great electoral broom that would replace career politicians with citizen-legislators more concerned about passing good laws than climbing the political ladder. Since term limits would force them back into private life to live under the laws they enacted, this new breed of legislators would presumably pass fewer and less onerous laws, and the institutional dynamic of the legislature would be more conducive to smaller government.
That was the idea, anyway. In reality, legislative term limits have been a textbook illustration of the law of unintended consequences.
The growth of state government has accelerated under term limits. It spends more than ever, regulates more than ever, and state taxes consume a greater share of the economy than ever. Public employee unions – the primary drivers of this trend – are more powerful than ever, and the productive sector of the economy continues to dwindle.
While term limits have not caused state government’s explosive growth, they do enable it by undermining the ability of legislators to resist the powerful special interests driving that growth. Who is better positioned to reject a public employee union’s threat to recruit and fund a primary challenger if a legislator doesn’t vote the “right” way: a first-term legislator with career ambitions who is barely known to voters? Or a long-time incumbent who has built up a base of support among his or her constituents?
Rather than vanquishing the career politician, term limits have instead created more resilient varieties of the species. The original idea was the regular opening of legislative seats would attract accomplished individuals who would serve a few terms before returning, like Cincinnatus of old, to their metaphorical plows. The reality is once they taste the trappings of power and influence, many new legislators find the prospect of returning to the comparative dullness of private life distinctly unappealing, and focus shifts to finding another elective office in which to land before the term limits bell tolls.
One peculiar – and increasingly common – phenomenon created by the Prop. 140 term limits has been turning legislative seats into the modern equivalent of feudal fiefdoms; hereditary holdings incumbents keep in the family by engineering their electoral inheritance by spouses, siblings and children.
Given that conservative Republicans were and have been the strongest supporters of term limits, it is ironic that no California political institution has been more damaged by Prop. 140 than the Republican Party. Legislators with potential to be good statewide candidates are prematurely pushed out of office. California Republicans choices now seem to alternate between either convincing rich self-funders to run statewide, or resigning ourselves to a battle of pygmies: witness the parade of Republican unknowns vying to be Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s opponent.
The constant churn makes it impossible to sustain legislative leadership that can develop and implement long-term strategy to elect more Republicans. During the 1980s, before term limits, a stable leadership with time to execute a strategy was able to steadily increase the number of Republican legislatures despite a lopsided Democratic gerrymander. Nowadays, it’s difficult for even active Republicans to keep track of who are the Assembly and Senate GOP leaders.
Proposition 140 is a noble failure that retards, rather than advances, the cause of conservative governance. On June 5th we have the opportunity to mitigate Prop. 140’s unintended consequences by increasing the number of terms legislators can serve. Proposition 28 would replace the current system of three two-year Assembly terms and two-four year Senate terms with a maximum of twelve-years of legislative service, to be served in either the Assembly or the Senate – but not both — and only applies to legislators elected after its passage.
I’ll be the first to admit Prop. 28 is an imperfect reform. Unfortunately, the perfect solution isn’t on the ballot, and in politics we choose from the available alternatives. I believe Prop. 28 will go some distance toward undoing the baleful effects of the current term limits regime. Let’s not confuse policy with principle, and recognize that legislative term limits are a means rather than an end in itself. Not only that, it is a policy means that has outlived its usefulness and actually undermines what’s left of the conservative cause in California. Rather than habitual obeisance to an outmoded policy, conservatives should support Proposition 28, which will at least modify the more baleful effects of our current legislative term limits.