By Bob Naylor
Special to Calbuzz
First, a confession. I served in the California Legislature for eight years. I am a Barry Goldwater/Ronald Reagan Republican. I termed myself out by running for higher office (and losing). I voted for term limits.
As Pete Wilson likes to say, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Turns out, it’s a very bad idea. What made it seem like a good idea?
1. “Citizen legislators, not career politicians.”
That is the slogan from the website of U.S. Term Limits, where I searched in vain for any other philosophical justification.
There are some sad cases of career politicians — especially when they cling to office too long, like Senator Robert Byrd, or the California equivalent, the late Senator Ralph Dills, who was first elected in 1939 and served continuously (except for a few years on the bench) into the ’90s, when he was termed out of office. His last campaign slogan was: “Too old to quit.”
But for every old hack forced out by term limits, there are at least as many people who are superbly competent, bright and balanced with profound institutional and policy knowledge.
Examples include the late Senator Ken Maddy, moderate Democratic Senator Bob Presley, Senator Jim Brulte, and I would argue, Speaker Willie Brown, at whom the term limits initiative was aimed (Brown was at his best getting difficult budgets through for Republican governors).
Furthermore, “citizen legislators” are few and far between. Most new legislators have served for years in local office or are well connected as union organizers or are staff members to the incumbents or other influential officeholders. Some are independently wealthy. There aren‛t many “Mr. or Ms. Smiths” going to Sacramento.
2. Overcoming the artificial advantage of gerrymandering.
We don’t need term limits to do that because we have Prop 11 (redistricting commission), right? But Prop 11 will not likely make a big difference. Eighty per cent or more of all districts will still be safe seats, because our body politic is geographically polarized — red counties and blue counties, hardly any purple counties.
3. Incumbent advantage.
I used to argue that elections are never really competitive because incumbents raise lots of money, have a big name ID advantage, typically have safe districts whether gerrymandered or not and get a handsome salary while they are campaigning. Challengers rarely have a chance.
But what has happened under term limits? Because the stakes are so high, the existing incumbent or the local political party establishment recruits the successor and forces competition to drop out. There are fewer competitive primaries than there are complete blowouts, often no primary at all.
So term limits have not produced competitive elections or many citizen legislators, but the reason conservatives should oppose term limits has more to do with their negative impacts.
They have made our politics even more polarized. In place of people who are secure and long-serving enough to say no to their “anchor tenant” backers when the good of the state demands it, we now have people who are worried about their next primary election when they try to move up after one or two more terms. From their first day in office, they typically tow the line of the unions, or the trial lawyers, or the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association who dominate the low-turnout partisan primaries.
When the Legislature is polarized, the majority ideology is in total control. And in California, that means the left. The art of finding enough middle ground to do what is necessary to meet a crisis, whether it be attacking the budget problems, the water crisis, or infrastructure decay, is almost a historic relic.
It is also a simple fact that two to four years in office are just not enough time to master the political complexities of a 120 member bicameral Legislature, let alone attain the policy expertise that has marked the great legislators. First term chairs of major policy committees, sometimes bringing in their own all-new staff, can rarely match the skill of a Bill Lockyer as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, or Quentin Kopp as chair of Transportation. There are exceptional performers, of course, but they overcome huge, and generally harmful barriers artificially imposed by the cheap slogans of the term limits movement.
On balance, the Legislature as an institution for policy-making has nearly broken down. Ask anyone who has been around the Capitol for a long time.
As a conservative, I favor returning to the model of the Founding Fathers. The original constitutional qualifications for office are being a citizen, a resident and of age. There are plenty of other checks and balances without adding term limits. In California, we have added the recall and the referendum to restrain legislative abuse.
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.
Bob Naylor served in the California Assembly from 1978 -86, as Assembly Republican Leader from 1982 -84 and as California Republican Party Chairman from 1987 -89. He is a partner at Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller and Naylor.