After 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