In November 1990, California voters imposed term limits on their state-level elected officials in the form of Proposition 140, which received 52% support. In June 2012, 61% of voters opted in favor of Proposition 28, a ballot sleight-of-hand sold as “punishing” lawmakers – reducing their Sacramento tenure from 14 to 12 years – when it fact it rewarded Assembly and State Senate members by allowing them to spend the entire decade-plus in one chamber (under Prop 140, lawmakers couldn’t exceed three, two-year Assembly terms or two, four-year Senate terms).
As this edition of “Sacramento Spotlight” suggests, Prop 28 didn’t go far enough. Term limits not only have failed to live up to their supposed potential, but also have likely aided in more bad governance in Sacramento.
All of the arguments in favor of term limits are motivated by removing entrenched incumbents. They are: 1) To reduce the number of career politicians serving in the legislature, 2) To make legislative elections more competitive, 3) To remove the power of special interests over the State Legislature, and 4) To increase the diversity among representatives.
However, with hindsight and political science research, we now know that none of the items came true—and in some cases, the problem got worse.
Reduce Career Politicians: Term limits have done nothing to reduce the number of career politicians in Sacramento. If anything, term limits have increased the number as elected officials engage in political musical chairs. Take the example of the California’s current State Treasurer, Bill Lockyer, who’s managed to piece together 16 years in state constitutional offices by cleverly gaming California’s rules. After being termed out of the State Senate in 1998, Lockyer succeeded in getting himself elected State Attorney General. After that, State Treasurer. Before he announced his retirement, the expectation was he’d make a run at State Controller in 2014, in order to buy himself another eight years in office (under Prop 140 and Prop 28, incumbents can only serve two, four-year terms for a state constitutional office such as governor, Treasurer or AG).
Political science research backs up the phenomenon of seat-shopping and office-hopping. As Gary Moncrief, Richard Niemi, and Lynda Powell note in a 2011 study, “there is also a strong relationship between the presence of term limits and interchamber movement.” Additionally, Jeffrey Lazarus notes, in a 2006 study, “I find that those who wish to pursue a long-term political career are not, in general, stopped by term limits.” Seth Masket and Jeffry Lewis conclude in their 2007 study of California’s term limit laws that “rather than being supplanted by citizen legislators, career politicians have simply adapted to the constraints imposed by term limits.”
Increase Electoral Competitiveness: Term limits have failed to increase electoral competition – and, in some cases, have actually limited competition. While early studies of term limits suggested they had succeeded in making elections competitive, more recent reports, with more data available, have suggested otherwise. As Masket and Lewis note, “in terms of electoral competitiveness, state legislative incumbents are in no more danger of losing seats today than” pre-term limits and “open-seat races are not any more competitive under term limits than before.” Furthermore, in a 2006 paper, Erik Engstrom and Nathan Monroe find that “the vote loss suffered by the incumbent party is smaller in term-limited seats than in voluntary open seats,” providing evidence that “quality incumbent-party replacements run disproportionately in term-limited seats.” This lack of competition isn’t entirely surprising. A serious competitor would rather wait until there is an open seat than challenge a sitting incumbent and term limits ensure an open seat isn’t too far off.
Reduce Special Interests: Probably the most compelling argument for term limits is curbing the influence of special interests. Simply examining the power of groups like the California Teachers Association or the California Correctional Peace Officers Association suggests that term limits backfired in this regard. With new politicians cycling through consistently, the members no longer hold institutional knowledge, which is, instead, held by their support system of aides and government bureaucrats. According to a 2001 study by Gary Moncrief and Joel Thompson, “term limits have caused the political influence structure to shift away from the legislature and toward the governor, administrative agencies, and interest groups.” John Carey, Richard Niemi, and Lynda Powell, as early as 1998, found that “term limits appear to be redistributing power away from majority party leaders and toward governors and possibly legislative staffers.” However, the issue of empowered executive agencies could be solved with effective legislative oversight, but research shows that not only is legislative oversight not effective prior to term limits, it gets even less effective under term limits.
Increase Legislative Diversity: As California is diverse – since 2011, a “majority minority state” – one would expect its political leadership to cover a broad ethnic spectrum. Indeed, over the years California’s legislature has become more diverse in background, gender, and race. However, research suggests that is not because of term limits. A 2011 study by John Carey, Richard Niemi, Lynda Powell, and Gary Moncrief concludes that term limits “have virtually no effect on the types of people elected to office – whether measured by a range of demographic characteristics or by ideological predisposition.” Similarly, a 2003 paper by a group of political scientists suggests that term limits are not the root cause of increased minority representation in state legislatures. This finding shouldn’t be surprising. Voters are likely to vote for someone that looks like them, acts like them, and has similar backgrounds. As voters become more diverse, they’re more likely to elect diverse representatives, independent of term limits.
Yet, beyond the failure of keeping its promises, term limits also enhance bad governance.
Poor Governing: While some opined that term limits would increase voter participation, evidence strongly suggests otherwise. In the five California general elections prior to Prop 140 (excluding special elections), statewide turnout averaged about 53%. In the five general, non-special elections immediately after Prop 140’s passage, statewide voter turnout was 49%. In the five most recent general, non-special elections, average statewide turnout was just 51%. Research reinforces this cursory look at voter participation and term limits. Kimberly Nalder, a political scientist, found evidence, in a 2007 study, that state legislative term limits “not only fail to achieve [increased voter participation], but they, in fact, decrease voter turnout.”
Not only are voters not turning out to vote for their representatives, but term limits have been shown to adversely affect lawmakers’ sense of accountability. Evidence of this development include an increase in state spending under term limited versus non-term limited legislatures, and legislation becoming prohibitively complex and far more opaque.
But arguably most problematic in an age of ever-increasing partisanship and polarization, term limits work to break down and eliminate legislative relationships across the aisle. Because of the abbreviated time under the Capitol Dome, long lasting working bipartisan relationships are not necessary and actually, in some instances, can serve as a legislative detriment.
When put together, term limits do the exact opposite reformers intend – they incentivize bad governance and otherwise add very little value to the legislative process. A first step toward better governance in Sacramento would be to lift this restriction altogether.
Check-out the previous “Sacramento Spotlight”: Comprehensive Good Governance Reform Part1 – Unicameral Legislature
Follow Carson Bruno on Twitter: @CarsonJFBruno