Counterpoint: Why A Conservative Backs Term Limits


Afterfleischman Calbuzz posted Bob Naylor’s piece last week on why conservatives ought to oppose term limits, our friend Jon Fleischman at the Flashreport asked for an opportunity to tell Calbuzzers why a conservative might want to be for them. Although we’ve argued that term limits are one of the structural impediments to making California governable, we thought we’d give Jon a chance to argue otherwise to our readers.

By Jon Fleischman
Special to Calbuzz

When I first got involved in politics, at the age of nearly 20, I remember traveling to the Capitol and meeting and seeing a lot of state legislators.  The most overwhelming thought that I carried away from that first trip was the realization that a whole lot of them had been serving in the Legislature since before I was born.  I remember, along with so many others, looking with awe at Speaker Willie Brown, who was as close to king as you could get in California.  And I remember being repulsed at a political process that could place so much power in the hands of one of 80 members of the California Assembly.

As I became a little more seasoned politico, it became obvious to me that the Legislature was completely out of touch with the “real people” of California.  And while I knew term-limits would not solve all of those problems, I supported Proposition 140 in 1990 because there should never be a phenomenon like we had with Willie Brown again – California royalty.

I certainly agree with Bob Naylor who penned a column for CalBuzz last week, that there are a lot of problems with the state Legislature. But I disagree entirely that these problems are as a result of term limits.

If you want to look to some of the reasons why our Legislature is broken I suggest we look a few of the major contributors to that dysfunction.

•    The legislature should be part-time, not full-time.  There would likely be less allure to serving for decades in the legislature if serving were not a full-time job.  In addition, the full-time legislature becomes “the Devil’s workshop” as so many politicians justify their full-time salaries through the creation of thousands and thousands of unnecessary pieces of legislation every year, over-legislating and over-regulating our state.

•    The gerrymandering of the state’s legislative districts to advantage the majority party is nothing short of scandalous, and certainly has led to a Legislature that is out of touch with the people of the state (witness this last May’s rejection of more taxes as a recent example).

•    With the massive population of California, legislative districts have become too large.  California State Senators represent substantially larger districts than members of Congress!  With districts so large, it makes it that much more difficult for legislators to be held accountable to their constituents.

•    Then there is the issue of the insane money advantage for incumbents.  On an overwhelming level, the money that is contributed for candidates running for the Legislature comes not from average citizens with a strong interest in seeing good, ordinary people like themselves represent them in Sacramento. Instead the money that funds campaigns for Democrats and Republicans alike mostly comes from special interest groups that seek to manipulate state laws and regulations to their advantage –- interests ranging from public employee union and trial lawyers to major corporations.  Add to this that the major political parties routinely support incumbents of their party for re-election, supplying even more resources contributed to the parties by those same special interests.

Clearly term limits alone as a reform cannot offset these four major problems plaguing the Legislature. But I would submit they play a positive role in ensuring that power in Sacramento does not become centralized in the hands of career politicians like some of the people that Bob holds out in his piece as examples of great legislators – such as “King” Willie Brown himself.

I agree that the more time spent in the Legislature, the more experience one has. But this advantage is more than offset by the growing detachment of career politicians from the “real world,”  and the absence of a need to live under the laws they create.

In his column, Bob Naylor asserts that, “If a legislator has mastered the political art well enough to deserve another term, the people of that district should have the right to grant it.”

That sounds nice in print, but as a practical matter, because of all of the factors I outlined above, it is almost impossible, short of a scandal, to find examples of incumbent officeholders losing their campaigns for re-election.  In fact, if it were not for term-limits, we would return right back to the pre-Proposition 140 era – with legislators serving for more than 30, 30 or even 40 years – safely ensconced in taxpayer supplied jobs, never having to worry about the impacts of the laws their create on the economy in which they would need to find a job after leaving the Legislature.

The challenger to an incumbent officeholder faces almost an impossible task in a general election. And good luck trying to unseat a legislator in a primary.  It is only the existence of term limits that ensures that every eight years in the Senate, and every six years in the Assembly, there will be an open seat and an opportunity for the voters to have a real impact on their representation in Sacramento.

Term limits exist today because the people do not want a state Legislature that is “above them” – but rather they want elected officials that are “from them” – their co-workers, their neighbors, their friends from church or temple.  It was the era of full-time legislators that brought us campaign slush funds, lavish pensions and the trappings of “royalty” that made it clear that those long-time politicians had lost touch with the people they were supposed to represent.

Bob says that he would favor returning to a system without any term limits – invoking the model of the Founding Fathers.  I have no doubt that if those brave first Americans could have seen that our federal government would grow so grotesquely in size and scope, and that serving in the Congress would become a lifetime career with great pay and outrageous benefits, they would have instituted term limits in the United States Constitution.

When California has a part-time legislature, smaller and fairly drawn legislative districts, and we have figured out how to increase the political giving of regular citizens to a degree that it severely reduces the terrible influence of those seeking advantage from government – then I will entertain a serious discussion about whether the need for term limits remains.  Until then, I would much prefer a steady flow of citizen-politicians in and out of the Legislature than a return to the days of elected California royalty.  Based on the failure of all of the attempts to eliminate or weaken California’s legislative term-limits, apparently I am not alone.

Jon Fleishman is publisher of the FlashReport website on California politics and vice chairman (South) of the California Republican Party

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There are 8 comments for this post

  1. avatar Young Moderate Dem says:

    I still believe that term limits do more harm than good, but I agree with a lot of the points you make Jon. Legislative districts in the state are insanely large and incumbents do have a large advantage in terms of fundraising and name recognition.

    But I don’t think having a part-time Legislature will solve what conservatives call “too much” legislation. If anything, making the Legislature part-time will only make it that much more difficult for legislators to work together and spend the time to make complex decisions on how to reform the public pension system or create a comprehensive solution to the state’s water problem.

  2. avatar tegrat says:

    Term limits are the wrong approach to solving the right problem. Influence peddling and general disdain for your constituency will not go away just because you are not going to be in office forever, that’s simplistic thinking. As long as special interests can buy politicians the problems term limits were thought to address will persist. Campaign finance reform should be the primary goal.

  3. avatar Andy says:

    I’ll stack the 20 years before term limits against the 20 after term limits.

    There’s a lot of pontificating here about influence and part-time legislators being somehow better than fullt-time ones (why, since they don’t work full-time now?) but there’s not much substance.

    My personally feelings a pretty basic on the issue – I want experts running my government and experience is the best material for building experts. I also want to vote for my representative of choice without the interference of someone else from another county. If you like term limits, don’t vote for your incumbant, but leave me free to do as I wish in my district.

  4. avatar sqrjn says:

    Having a part time legislature would only ensure: (1) that unelected full time staff and bureaucrats have even more power; (2) that the legislators passes just as many bills, giving them half as much thought; (3) that only the independently wealthy run for office. This idea needs to die. California is or was the 5th largest economy in the world. You can’t run it based on a sentimentalist yearing for a self-reliant frontier body politic, gleaned (likely at a young age) from a TV western mythology.

  5. Jon you hit a home run with your counterpoint outlining the problems with our current state Legislature. In 1966 when California voted in a full time Legislature, the following year legislative costs doubled – in one year. From then on a political class was created in California. Our current “professional” legislators operate on an unlimited full time basis. In actuality, in the past 2 years they only spent 130 days in session…130 days out of 365. Do the math. Fulltime pay, perks and benefits for parttime work. What were they up to the rest of the time? Building their political coalitions, fundraising for their next full time political get and getting “ideas” for special interest legislation to cement those special interest coalitions they built…signed, sealed and delivered. Professional politics rules over the general welfare of the residents of this state. Not only are they out of touch with their constituents, they operate as an elite group as you so eloquently stated “California royalty”. the people in this state are fed up and have a crisis of confidence in their state leaders. Now is the time for reform. Redistricting will be underway and we need to return to a part time legislature. Look at Texas, the second most populous state in the nation, has the most limited part time citizen legislature. The Economist recently compared California and Texas and the National Review wrote why jobs and companies are flocking to a big, small government, state (see http://governor.state.tx.us/news/press-release/13234/ ). Res ipsa loquitur…let the thing speak for itself. For more information on returning the California Legislature to part time visit http://www.reformcal.com

  6. avatar jskdn says:

    If you don’t like what the legislature does, the most electoral input a citizen has is voting for 2 of 120 legislators. With more than 98% of legislators not subject to a citizen’s vote, it’s silly to think that there is a way to have accountability. Even then in most districts the only opportunity to pick who will represent the district occurs in the primary of the party that owns that district. The real chance is even less than that because incumbency still has huge amounts of power and the special interests have an inordinate ability to affect elections. We don’t have a representative government because we have a system that doesn’t produce one.

    We need proportional representation where a party can bear collective responsibility for what it does from the entire electorate of the state. Hopefully that will push parties toward crafting an agenda with wide appeal within the middle of the electorate. I recognize that parliamentary systems sometimes allow narrow interest parties to extort what they want when a governing coalition is hard to come by. But even then the larger party making such deals can pay a price for caving to extremists. I would hope one of the first third parties to arise would be to represent the growing percentage of independents in the electorate.

  7. avatar patwater says:

    Jon, with all due respect, I think that you are dead wrong. Working for the Rose Institute I’ve learned that gerrymandering is indeed ridiculous, but realistically reform won’t substantial difference. Were that the case, the 90’s would have been a golden age of California politics.

    In addition you talk about the influence of special interests. Here’s an observation: they aren’t going to go away. With term limits, you makes legislators more beholden to special interests because they simply don’t know how to play the game. Legislators don’t know the issues and lobbyists, the bureaucracy, and unelected staffers become the real power behind the throne.

    Your suggestion of a citizen legislature is similarly well-intentioned but misguided. The amount and scope of legislation that comes our Capitol is a function of ideology—not how long they’re up there. The real problem here is that Republican’s have become married to minority status. We’re perfectly content to stay pure ideologically in our safe seats and exercise our minority power every budget cycle (http://www.foxandhoundsdaily.com/blog/joe-mathews/two-thirds-california-republicans-and-stockholm-syndrome). The initiative process then gives a political outlet for the public’s right of center policy preferences so there’s no political pressure for Republicans to create a governing coalition. California—like all winner take all democracy’s—is in sore need of a changing of the guard. What we really need is structural reform—like a constitutional convention—so that we can wash clean the accumulation of constitutionally enshrined non-fundamental policy preferences and recreate the policy dialectic that comes from two ideologically competitive parties.

    Really what your point illustrates is a rather eloquent instantiation of the argument in favor of clobbering legislators because they aren’t doing their jobs. As good as that feels, it’s not rational to tie the hands of our legislators tighter and tighter and expect them to produce better results.

  8. avatar SezMe says:

    Jon yearns for a “steady flow of citizen-politicians” that is a fantasy. Where do you think all the newbies come from? Typically, county or city government. And term limits has done little, if anything to change this. For example, did Willie Brown leave politics when he was term-limited? Or Garemandi?

    If you want to have more representative, institute instant run-off voting.

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