Argument: Term limits undermine value of experience in governance

Issue Report: Term limits for legislators


Ezra Klein. “The folly of term limits.” Washington Post. January 4th, 2010: “California already has term limits. And they’re a disaster.

Virtually everyone I interviewed for that piece named term limits as a contributor to California’s fiscal crisis. Imagine, for instance, that you elect a well-liked local physician’s assistant to the state Assembly. Doesn’t matter the party. Our hypothetical legislator might know a lot about medical care. But she probably knows nothing about the budget. This stuff takes awhile to learn, after all. And remember, she’s not studying budget politics full time: She’s raising money and dealing with constituent service and reading up on other bills and traveling back-and-forth from her district.

So how long till our doctor-legislator really gets the budget, understands the legislative process, and matures into the sort of seasoned assemblywoman we’d want responding to a devastating fiscal crisis? Eight years? Twelve years? More?

Too bad. Six years and she’s out. Banned from the chamber for life, actually. And the problem isn’t just that six years isn’t enough time to understand the issues and the process. It’s also not long enough to build strong relationships across the aisle, particularly given that a lot of other members will have to leave two or four years after she gets there.

This hypothetical isn’t much of a hypothetical, sadly: It’s the background for Karen Bass, the speaker of the Assembly, who was elected in 2004. Nor is she unique. The acting president of the Senate secured his seat in 2006 (although he did serve in the Assembly before that).

The product of this verges on the comical. As a California budget-watcher pointed out to me, when you get Arnold Schwarzenegger in a room with the leadership of the Senate and Assembly, Schwarzenegger has the most budget and legislative experience in the room. A guy who was starring in Terminator films as recently as 2003 is now the most seasoned elected official during one of the worst crises California has ever had. Term limits are one of those ideas that sound good in theory but are madness in practice. You wouldn’t want to go to a hospital filled with medical residents or stock a sports team with an ever-changing cast of rookies. Legislating is hard. We need to give people time to learn how to do it.”

“Hear some arguments in favor of term limits.” So You Wanna: “The Response: It is not clear that term limits will solve this problem. Subcommittee heads will always have a lot of power, but term limits merely transfer this power to less experienced politicians, rather than limiting it. Furthermore, veteran politicians will continue to exist even with term limits: term limits will simply allow people to hold different offices subsequently rather than the same office for a long time.”

“Term Limits – Voters Guide.”: “Term limits is and always has been a bad idea. The reason it’s a bad idea is because it limits the choices of people the public has to vote for. If you have a really good public servant and you want to keep him, you can’t. You have to get rid of the good candidate and replace him with someone who’s inexperienced. By having term limits, we are eliminating the people who have wisdom and experience from political life. Like any job, it takes years to be good at what you do. About the time our elected officials have become good public servants, we’re required to throw them out.”