Can politicians cope?

Posted: Sep 12, 2004 12:00 AM

Politicians love the people, at least for these couple of months during election years. The rest of the time they merely put up with us, spend our money, and try to cope with our love for term limits.

In a new book, The Test of Time: Coping with Legislative Term Limits, edited by Rick Farmer and John C. Green of the University of Akron and John David Rausch of West Texas A&M University (Lexington Books, 298 pages, February 2003), 28 academics and experts present their research. This "research" consists mostly of surveys of what legislators and lobbyists have to say about term limits.

News flash: Legislators and lobbyists don't think term limits work. Not for them, anyway.

That politicians would hate term limits is not hard to fathom. But professors are hostile, too. Why? Years ago, political scientist Mark Petracca of the University of California-Irvine explained:

Political scientists were instrumental in promoting the professionalization of legislators. . . . They are cynical about the attentiveness, general knowledge, and judgmental capacity of the average voter. . . . They perceive attacks on professional politicians as a threat to their own self-proclaimed professionalism.

Throughout The Test of Time, the "professionals" make Petracca appear nearly clairvoyant. Professors George Peery of Mars Hill College and Thomas H. Little of the University of Texas-Arlington write:

One of the occupational hazards of scientists is the possibility of their work leading to unanticipated consequences. For state legislative scholars an ironic and surprising result of their research is term limits. In the last three decades they have fashioned a coherent discipline, generated an important body of work, and in significant ways shaped the very institutions they studied. Who could have predicted that one of the consequences of their success in pointing the way to greater professionalization and institutional accountability would be the "amateurization" and destabilization inherent in term limits?

The professors aren't agreeing to share the blame for the sorry state of our professionalized legislatures. No. They're blaming the citizenry for not embracing their utopia of career politicians. In their fantasies, legislators serve forever, gaining the experience to rule our lives . . . and, incidentally, the wisdom to fund academic research.

In the chapter "Michigan: The End is Near," Professor James M. Penning of Calvin College explains the increases in women and minority representatives when the state's term limits law first took effect, writing, "At most term limits seems to have hastened a movement of women and minorities into leadership which would have occurred over time in any case."

Yeah, right. Over how much time?

When legislators overwhelmingly tell Penning they agree that term limits causes them to set "more ambitious goals" for their "current" terms in office, that's not good. (Who knew?) New members are no longer sitting around waiting to be told what to do, so Penning concludes that "[t]erm limits have severely damaged traditional norms of apprenticeship and cooperation."

One can only hope.

Penning admits there are positives, namely that "most of the House newcomers ushered in by term limits have proven to be hard-working and productive. The 1999 House worked efficiently to cut taxes, reform the Detroit schools, and deal with . . . thorny issues. . . ."

"Yet," he reports, "there is growing unease about term limits in the state."

Unease? Oh, yes, among politicians. There's no unease among Michigan voters, though. Indeed, Professor Penning cites their strong support in decrying that "one should not look for revision in Michigan's term limits anytime soon."

The very existence of term limits is what offends these academics. Professors Matthew C. Moen and Kenneth T. Palmer of the University of Maine confess "[t]hat term limits passed in Maine is perplexing." And they're quite flummoxed that term limits leads to such disastrous freedom within the legislature that committees are filing many more divided reports, whereby minorities seek to argue their cases before the entire chamber. Moreover, committee members who disagree with their fellow members have taken the extraordinary position of arguing against the bill on the floor. Heavens! What's next? Voting their conscience?

"In some respects, the Maine Legislature is more innovative and adaptable in the era of term limits," admit Moen and Palmer. "In the second session of the 119th Legislature (2000), for instance, it passed a landmark bill aimed at lowering prescription drug prices ? the first of its kind in the nation. Yet, term limits also forced out the principal sponsor of that legislation in 2000, just as they forced out two legislative leaders widely seen as capable and fair. . . ."

Seems that term limits are working well, except that ? shockingly! ? terms are being limited.

Which is why politicians are getting desperate. In 2002, California voters slapped down an initiative to weaken term limits even with politicians and special interests outspending term-limiters by $11 million to $1 million. This November, legislators in Montana and Arkansas are asking voters to allow legislators to serve up to twice as long as granted by current voter-enacted limits.

In Arkansas, legislators aren't leaving anything to chance. They wrote their own ballot title, which tells voters that Amendment 1 will "establish term limits." No mention that the measure actually weakens the term limits already established. As I often point out in my Common Sense e-letter, that's exactly the behavior that consistently confirms the need for term limits.

Still, citizens everywhere must take the threats in Arkansas and Montana very seriously. Powerful interests desire a legislature of career politicians. They will spend fortunes twisting the truth.

The political insiders can be defeated, of course, even when they outspend citizens. But the pro-term limits side must be able, as it was in California in 2002, to get its message to voters. That's why term limits supporters are asking Americans everywhere to come to the aid of these grassroots patriots in Montana and Arkansas.

There's more to say about The Test of Time. Funny, none of the professors asked voters for their opinions. If they didn't have to, politicians wouldn't ask voters either. Next week, I'll discuss the love voters have for term limits. But for now, let's end on a darker note, the animus that politicians and academics hold against the very same thing.

In his chapter on California, Richard A. Clucas of Portland State University concludes: "[T]he introduction of term limits has increased the competitiveness of elections. There are more open-seat races. More candidates are competing. The election margins have tended to be closer, especially in the Assembly."

Great! That's exactly what term-limit proponents were seeking. But the good professor finds the dark lining: "The one manner in which competition has become more limited, as term limits opponents would point out, is that voters can no longer vote for termed out incumbents."

Aw shucks, you can't win 'em all.