Voters love term limits for politicians, but they shouldn’t. The quaint notion that public service should be held only for utilitarian purposes, for a short period of time, and that these limits create better government, is misguided and fundamentally flawed. The proof can be seen locally in the current mire that represents our public policy.
This is a changed opinion. Once an advocate for this type of “reform,” the effects of term limits have been so devastating at every level of government that it should be relegated to the trash heap of history—despite the noble intentions that brought such a policy about. As a result of term limits, government has become more corrupt, less effective and real democracy has been subverted. Real decision making has been replaced by individuals and institutions the public neither sees nor understands.
In the legislature, county, and city of San Jose, it is the lobbyists and institutional staff who run the show. If staff doesn’t like the policy of elected officials, they simply delay and ignore the direction of their leaders, knowing they were employed before the elected officials got there and will be there long after the decision makers are gone.
The concept has forced elected officials to focus on short-term goals and projects, knowing that long-term change is simply not possible. And if they have chosen elected office as a career, their real worry is the next office—not unlike any other short-time employee who knows he or she will be forced to leave their current place of business.
The recent change allowing State Assembly members and Senators to serve 12 years in the same house is a good change. It will allow elected officials to become familiar with the rules and processes, it will allow them to gain expertise in policy areas and it will require the ever-powerful bureaucrats to deal with them. But even 12 years is too short.
The Master Plan for Higher Education, for instance, took over 10 years to produce. The legislators who provided the expertise for the effort had several years of experience before the process began. The result was good policy. But that is impossible today. There just isn’t enough time to gain the expertise before moving the agenda.
In addition, lobbyists—at all levels—become more essential. Those who have been around the block provide the necessary expertise in a policy area. They have the institutional memory needed to move policy and are very powerful. But it comes at a cost, as each lobbyist also has an interest in the outcome and competing lobbyists know how to delay and stop the process altogether.
Term limits came about as recognition that gerrymandering by the legislature virtually insured lifetime jobs of elected officials. The recent reform that provided an independent commission to redraw lines without any recognition of party affiliation has solved that problem.
In essence, term limits in a free and fair election have always been an option for the voters. We should return that power to them, especially in California.
Locally, we should repeal all term limits and put our elected officials back in charge of the bureaucrats, who routinely shine them on, as well as the lobbyists whose potentially conflicted expertise has become a necessary evil.
In short, term limits is a failed experiment proving not all ideas regarding government reform are good ideas.
Rich Robinson is a political consultant in Silicon Valley.