Are Term Limits a Good Idea?

Jim Newton, a longtime local politics reporter in Los Angeles, wrote his final column for the LA Times today. In it, he offered up “a handful of changes that might make a big difference,” and the one that resonates with me is his suggestion that both LA and California do away with term limits:

Elected officials who were popular with their constituents once held their seats for decades, building up experience and knowledge; now, with term limits in place, they’re barely seated before they start searching for the next office. That’s brought new faces but at great cost. Power has shifted from those we elect to those we don’t, to the permanent bureaucracy and to lobbyists. Problems get kicked down the road in favor of attention-grabbing short-term initiatives that may have long-term consequences.

Case in point: Why do so many public employees enjoy budget-breaking pensions? Because term-limited officials realize it is easier to promise a future benefit than to give raises now. The reckoning comes later; by then they’re gone.

Term limits locally were the work of Richard Riordan, who bankrolled the initiative and later became mayor. I asked him recently about them, and he startled me with his response: It was, he said, “the worst mistake of my life.”

Term limits always sound good. The problem with the idea is that being a council member or a legislator is like any other job: you get better with experience. If your legislature is populated solely by people with, at most, a term or two of experience, it’s inevitable that (a) they’ll have an almost pathologically short-term focus, and (b) more and more power will flow to lobbyists and bureaucrats who stay around forever and understand the levers of power better.

For what it’s worth, I’d recommend a middle ground. I understand the problem people have with politicians who win office and essentially occupy sinecures for the rest of their lives. It’s often a recipe for becoming insulated and out of touch with the real-world needs of constituents. But short term limits don’t solve the problem of unaccountable power, they simply shift the power to other places. The answer, I think, is moderate term limits. Something between, say, ten and twenty years. That’s long enough to build up genuine expertise and a genuine power base, while still preventing an office from becoming a lifetime of guaranteed employment.