The Strange Logic of Term Limits Reform

"So, Lone Star, now you see that evil always will triumph, because good is dumb." -- Dark Helmet, Spaceballs

Let's say you're a good government type who is frustrated with how California's inexperienced legislators are unable to balance budgets and protect funding for schools and public services. Let's say you thought that California's 14-year term limits on state legislators was a big reason for that amateurism. What would you do? You'd probably offer a proposal to raise the limit to 20 or more years. Or you'd seek to get rid of the limits all together.

But not California's community of would-be political reformers. Their new initiative to "roll back" term limits, a measure that appears headed to the November ballot, blows up the 14-year term limits by.... drum roll, here... setting a new term limit restriction of 12 years in the legislature.

If only this were an aberration. Instead, it's just the latest example of the defeatism and disordered thinking of the state's good government community of foundations, progressive unions and business pragamatists.

In election cycle after election cycle, these reformers pursue the same strategy: they rail against the broken governing system in California, pool their resources, and then bet heavily on some minor reform that is unlikely to do much of anything to alter political reality. And when voters turn down even this modest initiative, they try again -- with the same modest initiative.

The term limits initiative -- which would replace the current limits of 6 years service in the Assembly and 8 years in the senate with a 12-year limit for total service to the legislature -- is just one example of this failed strategy. Voters defeated a nearly identical proposal in February 2008. But the sponsors are trying again, even though it's less than clear that such a modest change would produce what reformers want: a legislature with more experienced and thus more effective lawmakers who don't have to worry so often about finding the next office.

Prop 14, the June ballot measure that proposes to change primary rules, is another example. The goal is noble: to create a more open primary that would lead to the election of more moderates who are inclined to compromise. But a similar measure was defeated by voters in 2004. And there's little evidence in the the two states that use this kind of primary system -- Washington state and Louisiana -- that a modest change in primary rules produces more moderate legislators.

These quixotic reform campaigns have consumed years and tens of millions of dollars, and still California's problems remain. Why do reformers do it? If you ask them, they cite polls that show great public skepticism about any reform, which they see as a reason to be cautious. That's wrong-headed. It's precisely because modest reforms such as the term limits initiative are so difficult to pass that it makes sense to pursue broader, more profound changes that can alter political reality. Put simply: when defeat is likely, why not try what actually works?

What might that be? When it comes to term limits, it'd be far better to ask voters to get rid of them than to spend more money on an initiative like the one headed to the November ballot. And when it comes to reshaping the composition of the legislature, real reform would reshape the legislature -- by making it bigger, by eliminating one of the two houses (the two-house legislative system is a legacy of our British colonial masters and serves mainly to give lobbyists more dark corners in which to kill legislation), and by replacing single-member legislative districts with multi-member districts that reflect the regions of California.

I'll be providing more details on these ideas in future posts.

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