Friday, December 16, 2011

Term limits make their mark in Missouri

Although it is not its intention, a new 15-page report, “The Impact and Implications of Term Limits in Missouri” by David C. Valentine, provides data that highlights the success of term limits in that state’s legislature.

In 1992, Missouri citizens collected signatures and put an initiative on the ballot that limited both state representatives and senators to 8 years in office. Voters approved the constitutional amendment with 75 percent of the vote and a May 2011 poll suggests 77 percent of Missourians continue to support the law. It went into full effect in 2003.

Citizens can easily see how term limits have resulted in more competitive elections and regular rotation in office. But Valentine’s study adds some color to our more casual observation:

First, term limits in Missouri have largely erased the surge in tenure that marked the later 20th Century. This nation’s founders believed that regular rotation in office was essential for democracy to operate and indeed for the first century and a half of our history their vision operated in our state houses and even the U.S. Congress. But in the latter half of the 20th century, coinciding with the growth of government, entrenched incumbency became the norm in nearly all political bodies of any size. The classic example is the U.S. House, where today there is a roughly 95 probability probability of an incumbent winning a race for their own seat. But in Missouri, as the study shows, the average tenure has shrunk to pre-surge norms.

Second, in the Missouri House, rotation in office due to term limits has created a more representative body comprising a far broader range of experience. The data show that previous legislative experience has been significantly reduced, an obvious result of term limits.

Third, the intended division between the upper and lowers houses of the legislature have been maintained and improved. While the House has been transformed into a far more representative body, the percentage of the Senate with significant legislative experience remains very high, as many or most Senators serve first in the House. Hence, the balance – previously skewed toward professional politicians – has swung back more toward the center, balancing the value of experience and improving the representation and participation of the citizens.

The result of this transformation has been positive. While every legislature – like every marriage -- is dysfunctional in its own way, some state governments are certainly better than others. The American Legislative Exchange Council – no friend of term limits – grades the states on a dozen or so result-oriented metrics. In the most recent score card, the top of the list is crowded with states with term limited legislatures. Missouri is ranked 9.

In spite of all this, the author of the University of Missouri study argues forcefully that the reductions in tenure and legislative experience in Missouri are defects of term limits. In effect he is arguing that legislative term limits are a failure because they limit terms of legislators! He suggests this is an “unintended consequence” of term limits.

Beyond the helpful data, the article consists of pretty standard rhetoric opposing term limits which will be helpful to the politicians in Jefferson City looking to hold on to their jobs. Given its timing and style, this is surely the intended purpose of the report.

Fortunately, the voters of Missouri have different ideas. They voted for the term limits and believe time has validated their decision. When polled in May on why they believed state politicians want to weaken term limits, a full 78 percent -- including big majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents – said “keeping themselves in power.” Only 9 percent said “achieving better government."

Sounds like rotation is office is precisely the consequence voters intended.