Term Limits—I

The Governor of Illinois, who does not appear to be in charge of a state government whose problems make any of our problems in Missouri seem relatively minor, is leading the charge to get a term limits proposal on the ballot there in 2018.  He’s even set up one of those tax-exempt political action committees that doesn’t have to tell the public he is trying to manipulate who is financing his efforts.

But he is counting on Illinois making the same mistake Missouri made more than two decades ago by enacting term limits.

Governor Bruce Rauner even appears in the television commercials urging the public to throw out “career politicians” who “go to Springfield and don’t leave,” as some of the supposedly common folks in his commercials say.

Your observer has been asked from time to time to talk to groups and reflect on his career covering Missouri politics for more than four decades.  The speech usually focuses on the mistake Missourians made in the 1990s when they threw away their right to vote for their state senators and representatives because of corruption in government.

There are a lot of reasons term limits for legislators is lousy public policy and have become obviously lousy public policy in our state.  We’ve put the label on this entry that we have because we might come back to this topic at other times.  But let’s begin with these reasons term limits is a bad idea.

  1. It takes away a citizen’s right to vote.
  2. It aims at the wrong target.
  3. Voters might support it but they don’t mean it

And our neighbors in Illinois are about to fall for the concept the same way Missourians did.

Point one:  Passing term limits because one legislative leader has misbehaved or is perceived as misbehaving (although never criminally charged, as is the case in Illinois) means citizens are giving up their right to vote for THEIR representatives or THEIR senators.  Citizens in part of Jefferson City were deprived of his right to vote (for example) for Bill Deeken for a fifth term in the House a few years ago—although he might have been overwhelmingly popular for the work he did on their behalf because term limits say even the most effective representative cannot continue to serve his or her constituents for more than eight years.  Sorry folks.  Your right to vote for a candidate of your choice is a right only four times.   Likewise, voters in a central Missouri senate district were deprived of their right to let Carl Vogel serve them for a third term because their right to vote was limited to twice for Carl.

Point two:  Related to point one but in a different way. The problem in Illinois now and the problem in Missouri then had to do with POWER, not SERVICE. But term limits advocates here then and in Illinois now are focusing on the wrong target.  Illinois has a problem with House and Senate leaders who have been in POWER for decades and are so powerful that some believe they have more authority over government operations than the governor does, which is the real reason Rauner is so out front in the term limits campaign there.  Plus he’s up for his second term in ’18 and some polls show he’s less popular than he would like to be.

Point three:  Illinois voters are being asked to approve, in 2018, the same kinds of limits Missouri has, meaning the clock won’t start running until 2020 and lawmakers elected that year will not be allowed to run for their seats in 2028.  That means the long-time figures voters want to oust can be re-elected to serve another decade after voters approve limits.

And Missouri’s record shows voters WILL re-elect them.

Missourians approved term limits in 1992. Those elected in 1994 could not serve more than eight years in the House and eight in the Senate.   For house members, it meant that those elected in 1994 could be re-elected in ’96, ’98, and 2000.   For those in the Senate, those elected in 1994 could be re-elected in 1998 and then they would be done after two terms or four years.

The 2001 State Manual shows twelve of the thirty-four senators were serving terms three through eight because voters who agreed two terms is enough, when given a chance to elect them to two MORE terms after term limits kicked in, did so.  John Schneider was serving his eighth term because he had already served six before the term limits law went into effect that limited him to two more—and voters who had said eight years is enough promptly elected him to a total of 32.

In the House, 57 of the 163 members were serving their fifth term or more. If voters really believe eight years is enough, shouldn’t the voters have shown they really believe it by voting these 57 Representatives and twelve Senators out of office sometime along the way?

They didn’t in Missouri and there is no reason to believe Illinois voters will be any different. Voters were not honest with themselves here.  There’s no reason to think they’ll be honest with themselves in Illinois if they adopt term limits.

If term limits are to effectively balance the powers of the three branches of government, their focus should be on limiting the time a legislator can be in a position of power, not on the ability of voters to choose the people they want to be their voices in the capitol.

Let’s put it this way (and we know we should not ask a question if we do not wish to hear the answer, but think about this ):  What is the greater danger:  One lawmaker who controls drafting of the state budget for twenty years or one lawmaker that you know from your district who represents your interest for twenty years?  Who has the capability of doing the most damage?  Who is least accessible to your interests versus who do you and your fellow citizens have the most direct ability to influence with your votes?

That is the greatest flaw in term limits.  It diminishes voter influence rather than enhancing it. And it doesn’t address the real problem.

Instead of restricting the POWER of the Speaker of the House or the President pro Tem of the Senate, term limits restricts the powers of the voters.

Instead of moving to equalize campaign opportunities for incumbents and opponents by improving campaign finance and legislative ethics standards and instead limiting the time an individual can wield power, backers of term limits aim for the wrong target and convince voters to shoot themselves in the foot.

We did it in Missouri and we have been living with a worsening limp for more than twenty years.

And our neighbors to the east, Illinois, might be drawing the same bullseye on their boots.

2 thoughts on “Term Limits—I

    • Thanks for your comment, Larry. I don’t think I indicated legislators were “guaranteed” reelection. The only guarantee that term limits provides is a guarantee that House members cannot SERVE more than four terms, if the voters choose to re-elect them three times after their first election and Senate members cannot serve more than two terms if voters choose to send them back for a second term. Well, there is another guarantee—that voters are guaranteed they won’t be able to vote for a legislator they like to represent them for more than eight years in either chamber.
      Hope that helps.

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