Last week my former employer, the Center for Governmental Studies, came out with a highly informative report, Citizen Legislators or Political Musical Chairs: Term Limits in California, which in large part debunked the myth that term limits actually work.
The study demonstrates that term limits do not create a class of "citizens legislators," who are public servants for one brief, shining moment in time, and then resume their private lives. This points to at least two possible conclusions. First, perhaps legislators get a taste of political office and like it (and therefore run for other offices). Second, it may be that the type of person who runs for office and wants to become a legislator is the type of person who wants to remain in some public office, apparently any public office.
California implemented term limits in 1990. That law provides that legislators can serve a maximum of 6 years in the Assembly and 8 in the senate.
The study endorses a qualified ballot measure that would reform term limits such that officials could serve for a maximum of 12 years in either legislative house. The study also supports allowing legislators to return and run for office after being forced to sit it out for at least four years.
I would go further. I think term limits should be repealed all together. Under the current regime lawmakers do not have the time to develop the knowledge and expertise necessary to develop into topnotch (or at least better) legislators. That means lawmakers are more heavily dependent on staffers and lobbyists, two unelected groups who we may not want running things from behind closed doors. In addition, lawmakers are consistently eying the next prize. Presumably, and quite naturally, lawmakers will be distracted by trying land their next political job.
We have voluntary term limits. They are called elections. If we have a problem with our lawmakers, and quite reasonably many of us may, I don't think the solution is to force them all - good, bad, or ugly - out the door. To me, term limits is an over broad solution to a real problem. If I have a gushing wound, a Band-Aid might help, but its not a long-term fix, and in the end it will do more harm than good by making me think I've done something to help and preventing me from addressing the larger issue.
Let's instead implement solutions to directly address the problem. Having an independent redistricting commission draw legislative lines is likely one step in the right direction. The new open primary, top-two law could also be a positive reform. Real campaign finance reforms (increasingly made difficult as a result of recent Supreme Court decisions) would be a giant leap in the right direction. We should also consider more dramatic reforms, like moving to a unicameral legislature and a system of proportional representation.
Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday. She is a Visiting Professor at Loyola Law School.