Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Armor's 'Why Term Limits' an oldie but a goodie

I am sometimes asked for the best primer on term limits. I respond that I haven't written it yet!

I wish I were joking. There have been some good books written on term limits -- The Cato Institute's scholarly Politics and Law of Term Limits and George Will's thoughtful Restoration come to mind. But not a primer, not THE book to tell the whole story from the angles of history, current politics, philosophy, law and statistics.

Or so I thought. I picked up a used copy of John Amor's Why Term Limits? and realize my sniffy response will need to be fixed.

Amor's, with the highly accurate subtitle Because They Have it Coming, is such a book. It is dated, as it was published in 1994. But 1994 places it in the midst of nationwide term limits victories and it is full of the optimism and fire that characterized that period. Recall that 23 states term limited their federal and/or state legislators via primarily citizen-led initiative movements. This was just before the great disappointment of 1995, when the Supreme Court invalidated all Congressional term limits in their U.S Term Limits v. Thornton decision. Those were heady days.

While many of the specific examples and stats are dated, they are not out of date because nothing has changed: "Special interests donate 90 percent of their money to incumbents, because 95 percent of incumbents win, because special interests donate 90 percent of their money ... You get the idea." Yes, we do.

There is much to learn here even for seasoned term limits warriors. And there are some approaches to the issue I have never encountered.  One example is that Amor divides the House between those who have served six years or less and those who served longer, made some adjustments to keep the party proportions consistent with the 1992 Congress, and looked to see if the fresh reps voted differently as a group.

They did. A case in point was the bipartisan Penny-Kasich spending reduction plan in 1992. The veterans and the leadership (big overlap here, naturally) voted it down 216-219. But the newer reps -- those presumably more reflective of the current thinking of the citizens -- would have passed it overwhelmingly.

In sum, this is the primer you are looking for, at least until I -- or you -- write an updated one.