With spectacular Pacific coastline, Sierra alpine peaks, the best music, movies, food and wine in the world, with ongoing world high-tech leadership and trend-setting culture, California is the Athens of the 21st century. But California has allowed a gaping hole to be rent into the fabric of its democracy, through the enactment of term limits for California’s state legislators. This unhealthy condition here in California not only causes grievous harm to our great state, it spreads ripples around the planet.
Every member of every powerful special interest influencing California’s government has an unlimited term. Every corporate chief, every union boss, and every agency bureaucrat has a job that can last for decades, but the elected leaders who are supposed to balance these special interests are automatically and routinely terminated, often well before their time, by term limit laws. The good politicians are eliminated with the bad. No visionary leader can arise to represent their constituents, when the only way to make a lifetime committment to a career in politics is to jump from one district to another.
California’s veteran legislators are now vagabonds, who hop from district to district each time they are termed out. They can never know their constituents the way a long-term legislator could, and they are more beholden instead to their party for funding and support. Because they must rotate districts, they are less likely to have grassroots support of their own. Term limits kill off powerful and independent legislators before they can realize their potential, and the effect of this is to shift power away from the voters and into the hands of party bosses and public bureaucrats.
If you are a legislator in California, you may be completely committed to the district where you have your own home and family. But unless you abandon your home and take over another electoral seat, you will only serve six years if you are a California State Assemblyperson (3x 2 year terms), or eight years if you are a California State Senator (2x 4 year terms).
Not only do term limits undermine the connection between legislators and their constituents, it guarantees a higher percentage of office holders are either ineffective novices or party hacks. It takes about 6-8 years just to know what’s going on in Sacramento’s state legislative chambers. What bill was brokered off the floor last year, and why, and why is it back now? What to do with the myriad of special interest lobbyists, and let’s not forget that registered lobbyists have no term limits. By the time you have acquired competence and established a reputation in California’s legislature, and can exercise the leadership that our democracy counts on to survive, you are termed out. This subverts democracy because excellent and powerful elected representatives are automatically killed off. Term limits are good for government bureaucrats and special interests, and bad for the rest of us.
The reason term limits were enacted was because incumbents were wielding too much power. Particularly when there are gerrymandered districts where all seats are safe. In California the districts are so gerrymandered that in California’s last general election, 2004, not one seat in California’s Assembly or Senate changed party hands. But term limits don’t alleviate, they compound the problems caused by gerrymandering. Both must end.
Towards the end of the California legislature’s 2006 session, a bill came very close to passing that would have done this – it would have eliminated term limits at the same time as it ceded redistricting authority to a nonpartisan commission – something that probably would spell an end to gerrymandered electoral districts. That this bill almost passed into law is encouraging to anyone who would like to see California’s democracy revitalized.
Given California’s visibility in the world, it would be an especially good thing if their voters and legislators and judges would act to put an end to gerrymandering and repeal term limits. The only term limits that should exist in a democracy are the ones enforced at the ballot box.