I’ll bet that everyone who works with the Legislature can name one or two legislators, from either party, who are “poster children” for term limits. These exceptions, however, do not prove the rule. Term limits, designed to limit the power of incumbents, have instead created a churn of inexperienced legislators and increased the influence of lobbyists and state agency staff. Also, term limits have done nothing to deal with the powerful influence of money in politics.
Term limits should concern anyone with a stake in Oregon’s budget. That means all of us. Planning Oregon’s budget is not a simple matter of making credits equal debits, and it is certainly more difficult than balancing a checkbook. New legislators begin their first session only eight weeks following election. They are required to make decisions about agency budgets much larger than most Oregon businesses. These budgets drive policies and programs — education, health care, transportation, public safety, and others — which directly affect the safety, welfare, and future of every Oregonian.
Before term limits, legislators looked to their “elders” for guidance. These long-serving legislators had institutional memory, knew well how the policy process worked, and had no tolerance for those trying to misdirect or deceive. With term limits there are no “elders,” only temporary leaders who become lame ducks almost as soon as they take office; those behind them are already planning their advancement. Without institutional memory, legislators must depend on lobbyists and state agency staff for most of their issue education.
Term limits deprive our citizen Legislature of the experience and depth it needs to do its work well. Term limits are the equivalent of a company policy firing all staff as soon as they have completed their on-the-job training.
Supporters argue that term limits make legislators focus on issues rather than fundraising, yet term limits have not addressed the powerful influence money has on elections. In 2000 the average general election spending on a state House race was $62,250, and 92% of the winners outspent their opponents. Total general election spending in House races in 2000 was over $7.5 million, a 36% increase over the 1998 general election. To raise that kind of money candidates must depend on large donations, usually from a few well-connected individuals, businesses, unions, or political action committees. There is also a tendency in both parties to want candidates with personal wealth. Who else can afford to take such a low paying job for a limited time?
Finally, proponents of term limits often identify themselves as libertarians. The same people who argue for free markets and individual choice want to limit the political marketplace and take choice away from the voters. Term limits tell us, the voters, that we cannot make wise decisions about our politicians.
Oregonians may have a chance to practice the adage “reserve the right to be wiser tomorrow.” Making their way through the Legislature are bills to revisit or repeal term limits (Senate Joint Resolutions 24 and 40 for example). These referenda would give voters a chance to think again about real choice in legislative elections.
Instead of getting voters more involved, instead of developing thoughtful election policy to encourage people from all walks of life to run for office, instead of giving voters real choices, we have term limits. Term limits make voters lazy. Voters don’t have to work to replace bad legislators; eventually they will go away. Unfortunately, so do the good ones.