THE DANGERS OF DILUTING TERM LIMITS
Limiting the number of terms that elected officials may serve is the most popular and powerful political reform of the last quarter-century. When the people have been permitted to vote on term limits, they have generally endorsed term limits by landslide margins. In the 1990s, 15 states approved term limits for their legislatures. In the states where citizens can make law by voting on term limits an average 68 percent of voters approved term limit measures.2 Across the United States, voters have approved term limits for city council members, county commissioners, and prosecuting attorneys.
Term limits change the rules of the electoral game. They force frequent turnover among elected officials by mandating regular open-seat elections. They bring in officials with new and varied perspectives and experiences. They shrink (and sometimes eliminate) incentives for officials to act with an eye towards reelection. Term limits also appeal to citizens who worry that legislators pay too much attention to special-interest lobbying groups that dominate the political process. Instead, term limits encourage elected representatives to act as independent trustees who make the interests of their constituents and their country the top priority.
In 1992, 60 percent of Arkansas voters supported a three-term limit on state representatives and a two-term limit on state senators. Among the public, the appeal of term limits has increased over time, if recent poll results are to be believed. Large majorities of voters oppose any modification of term limits, yet Arkansas contains some powerful and entrenched special interest groups who want to lengthen lawmakers’ terms. These are incumbent state legislators and lobbyists who benefit by retarding electoral turnover. Arkansas lawmakers decided in 2003 to place another term limits election – this one in 2004 – before the people. This election gave Arkansans the option of either keeping the current term limits rules in place or diluting term limits by increasing the maximum number of terms that legislators could serve. This proposed change would have doubled state representatives’ maximum tenure from three to six terms and would have increased state senators’ from two to three terms. The landslide vote in favor of preserving term limits—seven out of ten voters wanted to preserve Arkansas’ hard-won system of term limits—serves as an invitation to examine how term limits came to Arkansas in 1992 and what they have done for citizens.
The Arkansas Term Limits Story
The story of the establishment of term limits in Arkansas centers around a tiny group of citizens--none with any political experience. They managed to get a term limits amendment passed by a 20-point margin statewide, despite the objections of much of Arkansas’ political establishment.
Tim Jacob, one of the original term limits activists, initially opposed the reform. When his brother Paul, then head of a national term limits group, called and asked his opinion of term limits, Tim replied he was against them because they limited voter choice. But then his brother asked if Arkansas electoral politics, with less than half of elective offices having more than one candidate file for them, reflected a healthy democracy. “At that point, the light dawned,” Tim Jacob said: “I saw that we weren’t going to get better representation until we had more choices at the ballot box.” 3
Jacob, a copier machine salesman, met with the authors of the proposed term limits amendment--Lance Curtis and Steve Gray, two computer programmers. Their first goal was to get the measure on the ballot, which required roughly 70,000 signatures of registered Arkansas voters. There are firms in the business of collecting signatures for ballot issues.4 Obtaining signatures this way is a low-risk, but high-price, endeavor. The trio chose to rely instead on cheaper, but chancier, volunteer efforts.
“The smartest thing we ever did, was get a toll-free, 1-800 number. We had people calling us up volunteering to work their city or their county. We had people standing at the entrance of Wal-Marts or K-marts, or sitting inside shopping malls, or going door to door, or just getting all their friends to sign the petitions,” Jacob said. However, voter actions that year suggested that the preservation of congressional seniority was trumped in some cases by other concerns.
Jacob eventually became one of the chief spokesmen for the measure. He met with community groups, journalists, and editorial boards to garner support for term limits although he had never done that kind of public relations work before. When asked if he found the work initially difficult, he replied “When you’re talking about something you’ve grown to know – and grown to love – you become the expert and it becomes much easier.” He estimates the group raised about $40,000 for ballot access and related advertising costs. The cause was so persuasive that he would receive unsolicited contributions when he spoke. “Once Sam Walton sent us a $10,000 check, things got a lot easier,” he said. Hank Brown, a furniture store owner, also assisted the group.
On Election Day 1992, 60 percent of Arkansas voters voted for term limits. Term limit opponents argued they would destroy Arkansas’ seniority system in Congress. Three of four Arkansas Congressmen retired in 1992– and only one of them voluntarily5
The Current Term Limits Law
Federal lawmakers. The amendment limited federal and state legislators’ terms, but only the section that dealt with state officials survived a legal challenge. In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that term limits on Congress could not be enacted by state or federal law, but only via federal constitutional amendment. 6
State lawmakers. Members of the Arkansas House are permitted to serve three two-year terms. In the Senate, members may serve two four-year terms. The rules that govern Senate term limits allow for a considerably longer tenure in many cases.7 Depending on the year they are elected, state senators can serve for eight, ten, or even up to twelve years. That indeterminacy is caused by two conflicting imperatives. First, every 10 years, due to redistricting, every state Senate district has a new election in a post-redistricting election year. (Election years that end in ‘2’, such as 2002, are post-redistricting election years.) That across-the-state regular election of senators is the first imperative. The second imperative is what one might call the norm of staggered terms. This norm has some slight constitutional basis. The Arkansas Constitution states: “At the first session of the Senate the Senators shall divide themselves into two classes by lot, and the first class shall hold their places for two years only, after which all shall be elected for four years.”8 (Whether this constitutional rule requires its current implementation of drawing by lot to achieve staggered terms in perpetuity, or the requirement only holds for the very first session of the General Assembly in 1837, is a question that will probably never be settled except by future litigation.) The theory behind staggered terms is presumably that it is better to have the voters of at least some state senate districts electing senators every (two-year) election cycle, rather than having all senators elected every four years. That way, there is at least the possibility of some voter impact on the state Senate every two years. These two imperatives mean that after a post-redistricting election year roughly half the newly elected senators are randomly assigned two-year terms by lot. The bad news of a two-year term is perhaps mitigated by the fact that two-year terms do not count against the two-term Senate limit. Furthermore, those senators who run for office in a pre-redistricting election year (that is, an election year that ends in ‘0’, such as 2000), must also run for a two-year term, since all Senate terms must end coincident with a post-redistricting election. That two-year term does not count against the two-term Senate limit. In brief, a senator who is capable of getting reelected has a good chance of serving significantly longer than the eight years that the constitutional language anticipates. A candidate may run in a pre-redistricting year (the winner receives a two-year term that does not count against term limits) or in a post-redistricting year (in which the victor has an approximately even chance of being assigned a two-year term that does not count against term limits). Either possibility may extend the “two four-year term” limit to ten or twelve years.
County officials. Voters in some Arkansas counties (Baxter, Madison, and Pulaski) passed measures that would limit the terms of county officials, such as members of the county’s Quorum Court (the county legislature). However, the Arkansas Supreme Court found in 2000 that the Madison County term limits law was “local legislation that conflicts with the general law of this state,”9 and the other counties’ term limits quickly collapsed when subjected to court challenge. Presumably voters can only establish term limits for local officials the same way they did for state officials – by a statewide majority vote for a statewide constitutional amendment.
In short, although Arkansas voters passed term limits for federal, state, and county officials, only the term limits for state officials survive – and (given the looseness of state Senate term limits) those in attenuated form.
State Legislators Attempt To Dilute Term Limits
What is perhaps most notable about the state legislature’s attempt to dilute term limits is the near-absence of public discussion. There was no discussion of the proposal’s merits in the State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee. There was no discussion in the full House, except for a brief statement by the sponsor, Rep. Travis Boyd (D-Piggott), as the bill was introduced on the House floor. Boyd noted there were 79 sponsors, thanked them for their support, noted the measure would trigger an election that would modify the term limits provision of the state constitution, and closed by saying “I think we all understand the need for that. I hope our citizens will.”10 HJR 1006 passed by 86-7 in the House and 19-7 in the Senate.
It is hard to see how the General Assembly’s actions were driven by public sentiment. Less than a year ago 70 percent of Arkansans favored term limits, a Zogby poll found. A 2001 poll asked a more precise question -- whether voters supported six- and eight-year term limits for the General Assembly’s two houses – and found these limits were endorsed by 75 percent of the state’s population.11 Term limits also appear to have retained their popularity across the U.S. A 2001 study of poll data from five states found that in Maine more than 60 percent of the public supported term limits, while in California, Missouri, Ohio, and South Dakota term limits were favored by more than 70 percent.
The high-school civics model of government is that the people’s desire for some policy outcome leads officials to enact legislation to achieve it. Obviously, the popular support for keeping term Arkansas term limits as they are, coupled with overwhelming legislative support for lengthening terms, suggests there is something deficient about the predictive ability of the model. One possibility is that when it comes to legislative action some voices matter more than others. In the case of the attempt to dilute term limits, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that well-connected individuals with privileged positions in the legislative process have disproportionately influential voices. In addition to elected officials, analyst Stephen Moore has noted term limits’ “most zealous opponents are … staffers, career bureaucrats, and corporate lobbyists.”
Legislative staff. When state legislative staffers were surveyed, 78 percent disclosed they opposed term limits. This strikingly high figure may be driven by the fact that it is simply not in the personal interest of staffers to weather turnover in electoral offices. A self-interested staff would presumably prefer that the elected official who hired them stay in office for as long as possible. Legislative turnover means staffers will have to prove their worth to new officials, suffer job interviews, and demonstrate they are more highly qualified for public service than others that a newly-elected official might consider for the job – and (like incumbent lawmakers) incumbent staffers will often prefer stability to competition. Indeed, the criticism that state legislators unhampered by term limits are in danger of paying more attention to the echo chamber of the state Capitol than to the voices of their constituents only acquires increased force when long-time legislators are coupled with long-time staffers. Staffers appear correct to suspect that increased turnover among officials leads to more staff turnover. After term limits was enacted in California, the turnover rate for legislative committee staff more than doubled. Self-interest on the part of legislative staffers who oppose term limits is therefore a plausible explanation for their opposition.
Career administrative bureaucrats. State government workers and the bureaucracies they administer have a symbiotic relationship with state legislators, who ultimately make budget and policy choices. The long-term relationships that administrators have fostered with legislators makes them wary of building a set of new bridges to new lawmakers; as in the case of legislative staffers, there is every reason for incumbent bureaucrats to prefer stability to competition. Are newly-elected lawmakers more likely to decide that past performance is unacceptable and thus challenge and confront bureaucrats to perform better than longer-serving lawmakers? Or can veteran lawmakers effectively accomplish greater goals and demand more from government employees because of their lengthier tenure and greater knowledge? Opinions vary, yet it seems clear that many bureaucrats would prefer arrangements that allow for longer legislative tenure. This may have something to do with the greater willingness of veteran legislators to spend tax dollars It is not unusual for bureaucrats to seek more funding for the agency they staff, which often necessitates the cultivation of a web of formal and informal relationships that term limits threaten to eliminate. One can see how the regular rebuilding of such relationships, which term limits would force, would be demanding, time-consuming, and greatly feared by bureaucrats.
Corporate lobbyists. Those who wonder what lobbyists do in exchange for the fees they exact may find that term limits shed light on the answer. Conventionally, lobbyists argue their skills lie in persuasive advocacy on the part of clients – advocacy that rests on logic, arguments, and evidence. A more sinister interpretation of lobbying rests on the theory that what lobbyists really sell is “access” – that is, personal connections with powerful political figures. Term limits eliminate those personal connections with predictable regularity; lobbyists who command fees on the basis of friendships with well-placed politicians will find that term limits reduce the market value of friendships. Term limits force lobbyists to approach public officials as colleagues who must be appealed to as responsible decision-makers not receptacles grateful for past campaign donations and flattery who can then be hit up for political favors. Term limits make lobbyists’ jobs a great deal more difficult. Political scientists Gary Moncrief and Joel A. Thompson note, “Most lobbyists … believe that term limits have changed the nature of their job. They must work harder to get to know the legislators and to communicate their message to them. They view the legislature as more unpredictable.”
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that lobbyists would look favorably on any weakening of term limits. Term limits are a fatal blow to the lobbyists who capitalized on their friendships with committee chairmen and legislative leaders who, prior to the reform, controlled the progress of legislation for session after session and year after year.
State legislators. Term limits are a kind of ultimate weapon against the advantages that incumbents enjoy at the ballot box. It is hardly a surprise that most term-limited incumbents want to preserve those advantages by extending the length of their tenure. According to a survey by the Council of State Governments, more than three-quarters of elected officials oppose term limits. Notably, the movement to dilute term limits in Arkansas (2004) is driven by a fundamentally different set of political actors than the movement to establish term limits (1992). In 1992, the term limits movement was a popular movement of citizens that was resisted (and outspent) by the political establishment. In 2004, the movement to dilute term limits is spearheaded by the core of the Arkansas political establishment. The prime movers were the vast majority of state legislators, who used their position to put the measure before the voters. It is easier for legislators to create a statewide election to amend the state Constitution than it is for citizens; who must go through a grueling petition drive. All legislators have to do (assuming enough of them agree) is hold a vote.
Elite legislative opinion doubtless favors the dilution of term limits, as demonstrated by the lopsided votes of Arkansas’s two state legislative bodies. When analyst Aaron Steelman interviewed fifteen Arkansas legislative leaders in 2000, their sentiment that term limits ought to be lengthened was unanimous. Other states whose legislative bodies had final authority over term limits have weakened or eliminated them: the legislatures of Idaho and Utah repealed term limits passed in earlier legislative sessions, and Wyoming legislators diluted their own term limits. Those states do not permit a vote of the people to amend the state Constitution; rather, their state legislatures both created and then modified or repealed the work of earlier legislative sessions. States that put term limits into their Constitution by popular vote present a striking contrast: with one arguable exception, no state has eliminated or diluted a constitutional system of term limits by popular initiative or referendum. Supporters of term limits in Arkansas should take comfort that the decision-makers, for this question are not state government employees, corporate lobbyists, or state legislators – but, rather, the people.
The Unpopularity of Efforts to Overturn Term Limits
The recent history of attempts to overturn term limits is one of failure with one notable exception. Perhaps one reason that term limits stay in force despite these efforts is the identity of those who wish to abolish or modify the reform. The special interests most active in the effort to abolish or modify term limits are incumbent politicians. It would, however, be a mistake to ignore the lobbyists that support them. This self-interest on the part of officials is hardly unique to Arkansas. Career politicians who seek abolition or modification of term limits are apparently not sufficiently embarrassed by charges of self-interest to refrain from advocating changes.
Perhaps it was a coincidence that 20 of 22 members on the New York City Council who were barred by term limits from reelection were cosponsors of an unsuccessful repeal measure. Perhaps the California State Senate’s President Pro Tem, who coordinated the unsuccessful 2002 attack on the state’s term limits law and was the chief fundraiser for the effort, never had his own political interests in mind. Officials’ willingness to buck public opinion by working against term limits was a striking phenomenon. Perhaps the willingness to disagree with citizen majorities on term limits was driven by public-spiritedness, but given the interest by incumbent politicians other explanations suggest themselves.
Interest groups opposed to term limits constituted much of California’s political establishment, analyst Patrick Basham noted in his detailed summary of campaigns that attempt to modify or repeal term limits: “Nearly every interest group with business before the state legislature (including the gambling, liquor, energy, and tobacco industries; the trial lawyers; the California Association of Health Plans; the California Correctional Peace Officers Association; and the California Teachers Association); labor unions.” The measure tried to extend term limits by allowing incumbents to use petition drives to get on the ballot. Proponents outspent pro-term limit forces $10 million-to-$1 million, but lost when their extension received only 42 per cent of the vote.
Idaho’s repeal effort succeeded. The sentiment of the state’s voters – which affirmed term limits via referendum in 1994, 1996, 1998, and 2000 – should not be confused with the state’s officials, who repealed term limits. Incumbent state legislators, led by the state’s Speaker of the House, passed the anti-limits measure in the legislature, overriding their governor’s veto. Once again, the state’s “largest business and agricultural lobbies, such as the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry and the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation,” supported the measure. Their actions triggered a petition challenge, in which over 66,000 Idahoans signed off on a measure to place an anti-repeal measure on the general election ballot. The petition effort culminated in an election in where anti-repeal forces were only able to muster 49.8 percent. That was not good enough to keep term limits alive in the face of a spirited campaign by politicians and lobbyists: four previous statewide votes in favor of term limits had apparently not been enough to convince them voters had really meant it.
The effect of term limits on the Arkansas legislature
Demographic changes and increased voter choices. Two changes in the composition of the state legislature in recent years are striking: there are many more candidates vying for election – thus leading to increased voter choice – and the winners of those elections possess more demographic variety. That increased demographic variety of race and gender, to paraphrase former President Bill Clinton, helps to make the state legislature look more like Arkansas. Although it is hard to prove the extent to which the increase in the number of candidates and in the demographic variety of state legislators is caused by term limits, the fact that those factors occurred in the context of term limits is noteworthy.
The standard caricature of the state legislator as white male no longer holds true in Arkansas. Citizens approved term limits in Arkansas in 1992. In 1991-92, 9 of 135 state legislators were women, and 12 of 135 legislators were African-American. In 2003-04, 22 of 135 state legislators are women – the second highest proportion in Arkansas history. Similarly, 15 of 135 state legislators are African-American–the highest proportion in Arkansas history. To the extent that these statistics illustrate the opening of previously closed doors and the creation of new opportunities for previously disadvantaged groups, they are occasions for celebration.
One might ask what demographic diversity has to do with term limits? The answer lies in term limits’ destruction of one of the inherent powers of incumbency: routine and reliable reelection. Political observers can testify that incumbents who run for reelection typically have a high degree of success. For example, in Arkansas’s 2002 general election, only two incumbents lost re-election bids. In 2004, exactly two state legislative incumbents lost their re-election bids. This phenomenon is also observable at the federal level: 98.5 percent of incumbents won reelection.
Term limits require regular open-seat elections, and force incumbents to leave the electoral scene--taking the advantages they wield with them. Thus, term limits provide the opportunity for new candidates--and a more diverse group of legislators--to appear. They regularly replace incumbent-dominated elections–which lock out change and competition–with new candidates who bring fresh backgrounds, experiences, and ideas. In short, term limits force new entrants into the legislature with new ideas and backgrounds, rather than making them wait in line for the death or retirement of entrenched incumbents.
Does ten years of term limits get all of the credit for the increased demographic diversity we see in the state legislature today? No. But the legislature’s demographic diversity symbolizes the way that term limits erode the electoral speed bumps that the power of incumbency presents. As term limits become part of Arkansas’s political landscape, the number of contested primaries and candidates who file for office will continue over the long run to increase. For candidates, this means more competition; for voters, this means more choices. Ultimately, this means that change in social and political attitudes will be more quickly reflected at the ballot box, not dampened by the electoral advantages that incumbents possess.
Speaking generally, there is some correlation between length of service and votes against the public interest. One of the most striking pieces of evidence that shortening legislative tenure has positive consequences for the public comes from a 1997 study by former Rep. Ted Thomas (R-Little Rock) on voting behavior in the state legislature. Thomas studied several votes cast by House legislators on issues that most people would concede were essentially beyond politics. These dealt with legislation where (1) there was a strong consensus on the part of liberal and conservative political opinion columnists about a legislative measure, (2) there were sufficient votes for and against the measure so as to suggest a certain amount of division in the legislature, and (3) there was no apparent regional, ideological, or partisan explanation for any division.
The first vote Thomas examined, House Bill 2272, was proposed legislation, which would bar citizens from making complaints to the state Ethics Commission less than 30 days before the election. The Ethics Commission does not generally examine the substance of campaign finance reports, but usually confines enforcement activity to ensuring that candidates file a report. The proposal would have barred any pre-election sanctions even for obviously false campaign finance reports from candidates, provided the report was filed less than a month before the election. (The final finance report for September is due Oct. 15.)
Thomas found that longer-tenured lawmakers voted for the measure by large majorities. While two-thirds of first-termers (14 of 21) and nearly two-thirds of second-termers (19 of 29) voted against the measure, only 38 percent of lawmakers in their third term (19 of 50) voted against HB 2272. It is difficult to understand what a public-spirited rationale would be for blocking the only avenue for pre-election complaints and enforcement of election law. Thomas is too polite to speculate about motivation, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that what motivates support for this measure is support for the perquisites of incumbents generally.
Attention by lawmakers to their districts, as opposed to traditional legislative coalitions. Although detailed discussion of this phenomenon is beyond the scope of this paper, one of the more significant developments of recent sessions is that legislative leaders are no longer as able to form coalitions of rank-and-file legislators. Although this creates more difficulties for the leadership who want to exercise their traditional authority to deliver votes, it does suggest a more literally democratic legislative process and outcome, as public policies are considered more broadly, more publicly, and more extensively by more lawmakers.
The influence of lobbyists evaporates over time. A series of interviews conducted by Aaron Steelman with lawmakers and lobbyists suggests that lobbyists lose out as term limits take effect. Former House Speaker Bobby Hogue, who became a lobbyist, observed that the prediction that lobbyists would run a legislature under term limits was “the furthest thing from the truth,” given the immense expenditure of time and resources required to get to know new lawmakers. Lobbyist and ex-legislator John Paul Capps noted that many lobbyists didn’t know all the new legislators, and many new legislators didn’t particularly want to get to know many lobbyists. Representative Courtney Sheppard (D-El Dorado) was considering becoming a lobbyist, but was concerned that, in two years, “no one will know me.” While there was a consensus among lobbyists that they had greater influence in the Senate, due largely to the fact that the Senate’s longer term limits had at that point relatively little effect, it was clear that the ultimate impact of term limits on the Senate would lessen the influence of lobbyists in the same way that it had in the House.
The Arguments for Term Limits Remain
People may disagree about whether term limits are a good idea or bad, but they are beyond doubt an old and established idea in the American political tradition. Distaste for making a career out of politics occupies a central place in American political thought. Term limits for representatives were outlined in America’s first governing document, the Articles of Confederation. They do not appear in the Constitution because many of the Founders thought it obvious that public officials would have the restraint to limit themselves, a tradition that was by and large honored for over a century. The drafters also thought that specifying term limits would be “entering into too much detail” for such a short document. Furthermore, term limits – by forcing long-term incumbents out of office – provide bracing and inescapable reminders of what life is like in the real world. After former Senator George McGovern tried (and failed) to succeed in small business after eighteen years as a full-time federal legislator, he noted: “I wish I had known a little more about the problems of the private sector … I have to pay taxes, meet a payroll – I wish I had a better sense of what it took to do that when I was in Washington.” Bringing new lawmakers inside the legislature who have more sophisticated knowledge about the way that the rest of the world works might generate better legislation. Academic research also suggests that lawmakers newly elected after the passage of term limits devote more time and attention to district events and communicating with their constituents than veteran, long-serving legislators.
There is also academic research that is of perhaps greater interest to fiscal conservatives, suggesting that long-tenured lawmakers are more likely to spend tax dollars. Veteran lawmakers are more likely to have power over discretionary appropriations under a seniority system.
Term limits also speak to the desire for a more responsive and representative political system by mandating relatively frequent open-seat elections. The decennial ritual of redistricting, which typically creates a vast swath of districts gerrymandered by party, is only one element of an electoral system that systematically and artificially favors incumbents. When added to what one might call natural incumbent advantages, such as name recognition, media attention, and a huge fundraising edge, the outcome is massive and routine incumbent reelection. Establishing term limits cuts this Gordian knot by regularly eliminating incumbency. Such periodic open-seat elections are typically accompanied by a higher number of candidates filing for office; this means that term limits arguably create more alternatives for voters and thus greater voter choice. Finally, term limits create what might be called an “up or out” effect, giving talented but term-limited state officeholders an additional incentive to challenge federal incumbents in Congress or Senate – presumably leading to a better candidate pool, and more choices for voters, even in races for seats in political bodies unencumbered by term limits. A related effect of term limits was expressed by former state representative Steve Schall (R-Conway): lawmakers under term limits are unlikely to sit on the sidelines or procrastinate until the next legislative session with respect to their important priorities.
Finally, term limits serve as political reform, since they make it more difficult for lobbyists and other representatives of organized interest groups to capture lawmakers. Many Arkansas lobbyists will concede that, under term limits, they cannot rely on the traditional weapons of established special interests: a history of personal connections and campaign donations. As former state legislator and lobbyist Randy Thurman noted, term limits force lobbyists “to do a lot more research and a lot more work.” Under term limits, citizens who lack the established connections of elite lobbyists are able “to make a legitimate argument, to make a presentation and to be actual players, whereas before, there were those who had and those who had not.”
The cost of lost experience
Perhaps the strongest argument made in favor of diluting or eliminating term limits are the losses Arkansas state government faces when it loses experienced officials. There is no doubt that crafting public policy, leading to the passage of legislation, is a difficult and involved process. Being an effective legislator can require the formation of coalitions both inside and outside of the legislature. Being an effective legislator can require attention to detail and a vision. Being an effective legislator can require a subtle and sophisticated understanding of public policy, particularly of the logic and the limits of legislation – that is, the political and economic effects of state action and what state action can and cannot accomplish.
However, even after conceding that being an effective state legislator is a tough job requiring an impressive array of skills, it is hard to understand why those skills are only the province of politicians. Those with experience in any large public or private bureaucracy have often developed similar political skills of necessity. Those who study or teach economics or political science (or, indeed, any intellectually rigorous field of study) are often as familiar with public policy as the average elected official. Those in the field of human services (whether ministering to people’s physical or spiritual needs) have an understanding of human nature which dwarfs that of someone whose primary professional contacts are lobbyists, bureaucrats, and constituents. And those with private sector experience often benefit from a gritty and unromanticized view of precisely how public policy affects the rest of the world – especially with respect to the bloated budgets and unfunded liabilities that plague our federal and state governments. In short, while experience as a politician is doubtless helpful for public servants, it is just a bit narrow-minded to argue that other kinds of professional experience are irrelevant.
Once it is conceded that the great unelected mass of people are capable of understanding the legislative process, it becomes a relatively simple process for an inquisitive and intelligent person to understand the legislative process. The General Assembly keeps detailed records of legislation and lawmakers’ votes for the public – although in practice it has been difficult to get hold of that information in the past, the legislative staff has done a commendable job of making it accessible via a website. Citizens can also watch House proceedings on live cable television, listen to tapes recorded and stored by committee staff, or even call the staff and discuss the history and future of some piece of legislation with them. Lawmakers also regularly attend committee meetings that are open to the public in which, ideally, complex political issues are discussed in detail.
There is no other profession that requires years and years of on-the-job training to acquire basic competence. When incumbents argue the person who has just been elected cannot be a competent public servant, one begins to smell self-interest. There is no doubt it is difficult for a newcomer to learn the legislative process. But this problem does not call for the solution of diluting or eliminating term limits. The real problem that needs to be fixed is making the legislative process transparent and comprehensible to a well-informed and intelligent person, rather than arguing that being a legislator is an art, one almost verging on the mystical, that essentially requires years of apprenticeship in order to practice it well. The skills legislators acquire--budgeting, serving the public, administrative decisions involving large bureaucracies, making decisions involving numerous variables and uncertainties, and achieving public consensus on controversial issues by bargaining with interest groups–are useful even to those no longer in office.
Without some effort to make Arkansas legislative proceedings more transparent, the value of having a legislature filled with lawmakers who know how to work the system is at best a mixed bag. In Bill Clinton’s autobiography, he relates an anecdote involving “one of the brightest and most progressive members of the legislature.” This bright and progressive state Senator, Nick Wilson, is lauded as a canny problem-solver whose knowledge of state government would help the governor. Curiously, the book does not mention the disappointing end to Wilson’s political career: felony conviction and imprisonment for his defrauding of a state government program, one that he was instrumental in creating, that was ostensibly designed to provide legal services for disadvantaged children. One lesson of Wilson’s downfall may be that increasingly complex government programs that require experienced political experts to design and administer carry dangers with them that are not immediately apparent.
Representative and responsive government is alive and well in Arkansas and in many respects it is term limits that provide incentives for representative and responsive government. Term limits gave Arkansas citizens a way out of the bad old days—in which the same politicians spent decades in office, the system was relatively unresponsive, and state government treated new ideas and new perspectives as dangerous threats that needed to be resisted. Term limits lead to more competitive elections, smaller government, and new perspectives in the state legislature. The citizens who voted against the dilution of term limits acted to preserve those values.
1. Dan Greenberg, adjunct policy analyst for the Arkansas Policy Foundation, is a Justice of the Peace of the Pulaski County Quorum Court, a social sciences instructor at the Arkansas Governor’s School for the Gifted and Talented, and senior editor of the academic journal Critical Review.
2.Those interested in a nationwide term limits update can monitor http://www.termlimits.org/Current_Info/State_TL/index.html
3.Author interview with Tim Jacob.
4.Broder, David. Democracy Derailed (2000) New York: Harcourt.
5.Long-serving Democratic Congressman Beryl Anthony and Bill Alexander were defeated in primaries that year, and Republican John Paul Hammerschmidt opted to retire.
6.U.S. Term Limits, Inc., v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779 (1996).
7.Steve Cook, counsel for the Arkansas state Senate, graciously spent time to explain the complex system of Senate term limits and the rules that govern them to me.
8.Arkansas Constitution, Article 5, Section 3.
9.Allred v. McLoud, 31 S.W.3d 836, 838-39 (Ark. 2000).
10.This quote is taken from Comcast’s televised recordings of the Arkansas House. Although there are no recordings of Senate proceedings available as there are of the House, there is no evidence in the print or broadcast media that covers the General Assembly that the matter was discussed in the full Senate.
11.USTL Zogby poll. Blomely, Seth. “Voters for keeping term limits.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, p. A1 Aug. 20, 2002
12.Basham, Patrick. “Assessing the Term Limits Experiment,” Cato Policy Analysis #413, Aug. 31, 2001.
13. Moore, Stephen. “Term Limits Lead to Smaller Government,” Human Events, March 17, 2000, p.5.
14.Hodson, Timothy. “Conventional Wisdom or Wishful Thinking: Staff Influence in Post Term Limit Legislatures,” Legislative Studies Quarterly, July 1994.
15.Basham, Patrick. “Defining Democracy Down,” Cato Institute Policy Analysis #490, Sept. 24, 2003, p.4.
16.Some version of this is probably the leading argument that opponents of term limits, and defenders of diluting term limits, make.
17.Payne, James L. The Culture of Spending (1991) San Francisco: ICS Press.
18.Quoted in Basham, “Defining Democracy Down,” p. 5.
19.Steelman, Aaron. “The Impact of Term Limits on the Arkansas General Assembly,” Midsouth Political Science Review, vol. 6, p. 15.
20.The exception is Idaho, which is discussed below.
21.Cited in “Defining Democracy Down,” p. 8.
22.The record for women holding Arkansas legislative seats was set by the 1997 legislative session, in which 23 women were legislators.
23. The record for African-Americans holding Arkansas legislative seats was established by the 1999 and 2001 legislative session, in which 15 were legislators.
24.“Term Limits,” Arkansas Lawyer, Summer 1997, pp. 20-21.
25.Rita Looney, counsel for the state Ethics Commission, generously spent time explaining the workings of the Ethics Committee to me.
26.Steelman, p. 13.
27.Fund, John H. “Term Limitation,” Cato Institute Policy Analysis
28. Rader, Eric, Charles Elder, and Richard Elling, “Motivations and Behaviors of the ‘New
29.Breed’ of Term Limited Legislators.” Paper presented at the 2000 APSA meeting.
30.See James L. Payne, The Culture of Spending, especially chapters. 5 and 11.
31.Of course, in Texas, to call it “decennial” redistricting would underdescribe its frequency!
32.Rowett, Michael. “House members get a taste of a day’s work.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Dec. 6, 2000, p. B8.
33. Morning News of Northwest Arkansas, Jan. 5, 2003.
34.Clinton, William J. My Life (2004) New York: Knopf, p. 248.