Every few election cycles the idea of term limits rears its ugly head. The idea is to limit corruption on the side of politicians but in the vein of many actions undertaken with that goal, there are a host of unintended consequences that come along for the ride. Recently, presidential candidate, Donald Trump announced that he would propose a constitutional amendment mandating term limits for members of Congress. One only has to look to what happened when the California legislature passed the same thing for its members in 1996.
An amendment to the California state constitution was passed by the legislature in 1990. With this, the California legislature joined that of 14 other states in passing term limits for its legislators. The then Congressman Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) even made term limits part of his “Contract with America.” When the Republicans took over the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994, Gingrich became the Speaker of he House and tried to pass a federal constitutional amendment but it failed.
Term limits for members of the California legislature were originally passed in the 1990s. Members of the California State Assembly were limited to six years or three terms. Members of the State Senate were limited to eight years or two terms. The term limits are life time limits. These rules were again changed in 2012.
The reason for the change in state rules was simple, people were tired of seeing people stay in the California legislature for decades. People saw their elected officials becoming more and more beholden to special interests and less and less interested in what the people wanted. This is also a reason so many make use of the state’s proposition system, which provides people with an avenue to directly pass policy they want to see enacted. Ironically enough, it has also backfired as with propositions such as Prop 13, which impacted property taxes.
The problems with term limits were not immediately apparent. Power has shifted from the elected legislators but not back to the people who elected them as people had hoped. Rather than that, power now has shifted to unelected lobbyists and staff members upon whom the legislators themselves need to rely more and more. The institutional knowledge that legislators built up from years of working in the State Assembly and Senate is gone. The people who know the systems best are the people who remain working for different members of both branches and the lobbyists who seek to influence their decision making process. The members end up knowing less of the legislative history of most of what they are working on than the people who work for them and the special interests who want this or that bill passed or killed.
Since the term limits went through in the state, there have been a number of crises to hit the state. The state faced huge budgetary problems throughout the first decade of the century. One could argue the lack of actual legislative experience was a big contributing factor to those problems. The members of the California legislature just did not seem up to the job. The state only began to turn itself around when it elected Governor Jerry Brown back into office.
The other problem with the term limits in California is that it has sent its legislators bouncing from elected position to position. Because they do this, they never stay in any one spot to learn what they need to in order to become effective legislators. Moreover, when they leave an elected position before the term is through, the state is forced to pay for expensive special elections.
Politics is the one area where we almost expect people to have as little experience as possible. Voters seem to like that. More and more the people who serve in the California state senate and assembly know little of the California legislative history of any initiative before them. This is a problem in all of the states where term limits have passed. In all of this, it is important to note that the California legislature had one objective and while they met it, it brought with it a host of unintended consequences that no one wanted.