What a Deal: Smarter Politicians, Less Time in Office

DAN SCHNUR, director of USC’s Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Sacramento Bee.

When the original ballot initiative to impose term limits was put before California voters in 1990, I enthusiastically campaigned for its passage.

When career politicians tried to dramatically weaken the state’s term limits law 10 years ago, I fought to defeat them.

When I returned to Sacramento to serve as chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, I saw that term limits had dramatically succeeded in one important respect. The Legislature was far more diverse than at any other time in our state’s history. Not only were there an unprecedented number of female, Latino and Asian Pacific Islander members, but we have also seen an extraordinary range of diversity in professional experience and background as well, as small-business owners and union members, doctors and nurses, teachers and farmers and law enforcement officers have all sought and gained election to the Legislature since term limits took effect.

The perspective that these members brought to the Capitol has provided state government with an array of knowledge and insight that simply cannot be matched by an Assembly or state Senate represented disproportionately by politicians whose life experience is composed solely of government employment. In the era before term limits, we saw legislators serving for decades on end: one member took office during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency and retired less than one year before George W. Bush’s election. Even intelligent and hardworking representatives simply cannot oversee the changes in our rapidly changing society when ensconced in the Capitol bubble for such an extended time.

The best of our termed-out legislators have continued to contribute to California’s well-being – in statewide office, in Congress and by returning to their communities to serve in elected and appointed positions, as the heads of nonprofit and charitable organizations, and to start businesses and create jobs in the private sector. For those public servants truly invested in making a difference, a legislative sinecure is only one of many ways to give something back.

But I also saw another side of term limits. I saw legislators of both parties, smart and determined men and women, thrust into positions of enormous responsibility and influence before they had acquired the knowledge of public policy and governance to make decisions that would influence the lives of millions of Californians.

A rank-and-file member has time to learn, even while casting votes on these critical issues. But an Assembly speaker or minority party leader should not be put in a position of such tremendous authority during their first term in office. A freshman member should not be installed as the chairman or ranking minority member of a vital policy committee before learning the locations of the Capitol restrooms. Diversity and fresh perspective are critically important to a government that must represent the views of its people, but some level of experience that allows those representatives to act effectively on behalf of their constituents is important as well.

Proposition 28 allows Californians to have the best of both worlds. Those who have supported term limits in the past should take comfort that this initiative would actually shorten the amount of time that a politician can serve in the Legislature from 14 years – six years in the Assembly, eight years in the Senate, and special circumstances that can extend that time to as much as 17 years – to a maximum of 12 years, with no loopholes or extensions of any kind. But those who worry about the lack of continuity among our elected officials should be encouraged that Proposition 28 allows those legislators to serve as many of those 12 years as they prefer in either the Assembly or the Senate.

No longer will they be forced to leapfrog from one chamber to the other at the midpoint in their legislative careers, allowing a capable Democrat or Republican to more gradually assume the knowledge and policy grounding to effectively take on a leadership position.

There are those who despise term limits and would like to see them eliminated altogether. There are others who are not content to see the diversity and fresh insight that term limits can bring to government, and would prefer to see government unable to function at all. For such individuals, Proposition 28 provides little solace. For the rest of us, it’s a smart way to make an effective political reform even better.

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