The Gongwer Blog

At Last, A Serious Attempt To Change Term Limits

By Zachary Gorchow
Executive Editor and Publisher
Posted: March 2, 2022 11:06 AM

About a week into my first stint at Gongwer News Service, as the cub reporter covering the House of Representatives, I committed a grievous sin.

In those days, if you wanted the roll call vote on a bill, you had to walk into the Document Room off the House floor, grab the yellow paper with the roll call vote, put it on the copier, make a copy and put the original back in the tray with all the yellow sheets and other roll call votes.

I forgot to put it back. A few seconds after this happened, then-Rep. Don Gilmer, one of the great legislators to pass through the Capitol, strolled into the Document Room. He was looking for the same sheet and couldn't find it. Horrified, I realized what I had done, lifted up the copier lid and handed him the yellow sheet.

"Can we get term limits for reporters?" he chortled.

It was a poignant dig. It was late 1998, with the House set to seat 64 new members as a result of the 1992 term limits constitutional amendment limiting House members to three two-year terms taking effect. Veterans like Mr. Gilmer were in their final weeks, voters having rebelled at entrenched incumbents, spending 20, 30, even 40 years in office – not their own of course but of the mythical "other guy" who was responsible for whatever ills they believed befell their government.

As the years have passed, there is a consensus among almost everyone who works in the Capitol, works with people who work in the Capitol or observes people who work in the Capitol.

Term limits damaged the legislative branch, mainly the House.

The six-year limit in the House has led to a succession of speakers and minority leaders with only one or two terms of experience, meaning that from their first moments walking into the Capitol they already are focused on running to lead their caucus instead of first having the chance to build expertise on policy and let their opportunity to lead build over years as they demonstrate their aptitude.

The speaker also manages the entire House operation and needs to work with the Senate and governor to reach agreement on bills and the budget, again something where having more expertise and time to build relationships is of enormous value and long since lost.

A greatest hits of term limits failures of the past 24 years would include:

  • The House rushing through a repeal of the old Single Business Tax in a way that would have triggered a trade war with Canada (that the still veteran Senate had to fix).
  • A seemingly endless series of scandals as a parade of members not mature enough to realize the importance of their role got into trouble.
  • First-term members in the House forced into chairing committees, some of them handling issues far too complex for a new member. The former chair of the budget that handles the Department of Health and Human Services, a solid lawmaker, even after a term in the job, said the complexity of that budget was still too much for him.
  • The Courser-Gamrat debacle and the clumsy handling of it.
  • The budget shutdowns of 2007 and 2009.
  • The revelations now that, at minimum, former Speaker Lee Chatfield – the youngest speaker in 106 years – used his position to live the high life and partake in the very perks of power he scorned as a candidate.

Now, finally, after 20 years of false starts, talk and little action, an impressive coalition has come together to change term limits and is pursuing a constitutional amendment for the November ballot.

The proposal is simple. Instead of the six-year limit in the House and eight-year limit in the Senate, there would be a 12-year total limit in the Legislature. To allow for a broader reform message, the proposal also would mandate state elected officials to disclose information about their personal finances.

There's no reason to "on the one hand, on the other hand" this one: The new 12-year limit will improve House operations.

No, it won't end partisanship, nor should it. It will not end corruption, which certainly existed in the pre-term limits era. It won't prevent fringe characters like David Jaye, John Olumba and Steve Carra from getting elected, nor should it. Voters have the right to elect the person they deem best for them. It won't stop ambitious House members from running for the Senate and leading to churn.

But it will give members a chance to learn how to be a legislator first and not be thrust too soon into important roles like committee chair, floor leader and speaker. Speakers will likely have serve for six to eight years before getting elected, having demonstrated their abilities to lead first. Committee and subcommittee members could develop expertise for three and four terms before becoming chair.

It will mean that the House member in their first or second term could decide to stay put in the House for 12 years instead of gambling on a Senate run in hopes of serving another eight years in the Legislature instead of just another two or four.

This won't change much for the Senate. The Senate has generally had the more experienced body in term limits with the bulk of the members coming from the House.

But it would stabilize the House.

And it would still keep term limits in place. The idea that members spending 12 years in the House or Senate will bring back the most undesirable elements of the old days doesn't wash.

Let's recap a few of those because it would be a mistake to lionize the old days as perfect.

There was the arrogance. Committee meetings never started even close to on time because of what was then called "legislator time" – a concept that the legislator's schedule was most important and "committee meetings can start when we're good and ready."

Or how when school groups would visit and be announced and there would be no reaction from the legislators below, their staff members frantically applauding instead to try to show the kids someone cared they were there. One of the small, but welcome, changes in 1999 when the 64 freshmen arrived was that when school groups visited and were announced, the representatives began enthusiastically applauding them.

Committee chairs sometimes held their posts for too long, developing a power base of their own with favorites they would reward and enemies they would punish.

The proposal, however, does not remove term limits and open the door back to those issues.

The strident term limits supporters, I get it. They have a fear of entrenched government power.

But there is a happy medium between the major operational difficulties caused by the nation's strictest-in-the-nation term limits law and the old days of legislators serving for decades.

I don't know if this new proposal is that happy medium, but it is a reasonable attempt to find one.

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