Term Limits Help Lobbyists at the Expense of Good Government

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 Real decision making has been replaced by individuals and institutions the public neither sees nor understands.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.

Rich Robinson is an attorney and political consultant in Silicon Valley. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside.


  1. Why is it with the executive offices, like POTUS and CA governor,  we really didn’t need term limits, because except for FDR, no one served more than 2 terms.  After FDR, people thought it important enough to amend the Constitution to keep presidents from serving more than 2 and a half terms.  Interestingly enough Jerry Brown is serving more than 2 terms as governor under term limits.

    You would think that executive offices would be the ones that would want the long time horizons that you write about.  However, 8 years seems enough to get what they want to get done completed.

  2. No sale, Rich:

    Without term limits, politicians become insulated from the people, and unresponsive.

    Not that long ago, incumbency was a virtual guarantee of re-election.  Congress members were re-elected 97 percent of the time.

    Districts were gerrymandered to guarantee permanant ownership by the candidates of a particular political party.  Many candidates ran for re-election unopposed.

    Voters need as many opportunites to vet their politicians as possible.  And also, there needs to be FORMAL, REQUIRED disclosure of all information that would be typically demanded of a job candidate for an executive position in the private sector.

    All candidates shoud be required to disclose to election officials and to the public ORIGINAL or CERTIFIED documentation to include:

    1. Birth certificate
    2. Citizenship documentation
    3. High school transcripts and disciplinary records
    4. College, graduate school, and professional school admission information, transcripts, disciplinary records, theses, and degrees awarded.
    5. Professional licenses, including applications.
    6. SAT, and post-graduate entrance test scores.
    7. Arrest records, trial records, resolution documentation.
    8. A bibliography of all published writings.
    9. Marriage licenses, divorce records, child custody and support decrees.
    10. A summary of all professional disciplinary actions such as disbarment of revocation of licenses.
    11. A summary of all lawsuits filed, or lawsuits where the candidate is named as a defendent of respondent.
    12. A report of medical examination by a medical doctor and a health summary.
    13. Military service records, including medals awared and conditions of discharge.

    The evasions and shell games perpetrated by Obama over his birth certificate and college records were ridiculous and despicable.  No private sector business would have given Obama any consideration for a responsible position with such a lack of openness and cooperation.

    Likewise, the refusal of Hillary Clinton to release her college thesis was also a denial of important and relevant information to the electorate.

    And ditto for John Kerry’s temporizing and evasions over his military service records.

    If politicians want to be taken seriously as our prospective “leaders”, they need to treat voters as deserving serious information about the politicians’ qualifications, fitness, and character.

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