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Term limits work just fine, thank you

July 23, 2006|Mark P. Petracca

LOS ANGELES City Council members are tired of the city's term-limits ordinance. They want four more years in office, and to get them, they are seeking to put a measure on the November ballot that would allow council members to serve three terms instead of two.

The council's move is the latest in the continuing battle by incumbent politicians across the country to modify, if not overcome, the will of voters. New York City voters, for instance, imposed a two-term limit on elected municipal officials the same year as L.A. did (1993), and they have already rejected two attempts to extend limits. There is also talk in Sacramento of revising California's term-limit law, Proposition 140, to enable legislators to serve longer. But where such efforts to ease term-limit laws were put on the ballot, the results were similar: Voters have not been in a giving mood.

Term limits are simply a modern variant of the classically republican principle of rotation in office. They check the power of incumbency, increase opportunities for citizens to serve in public office and provide for a modicum of electoral competitiveness. By doing these things, term limits help ensure accountability in politics.

The movement to limit politicians' terms in office began in the late 1980s. In 1990, voters in California, Colorado and Oklahoma became the first to adopt them for state legislators. Within the next few years, voters in virtually every other state followed their lead.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 06, 2006 Home Edition Current Part M Page 8 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Term limits: A July 23 Current article on term limits said the National Conference of State Legislatures deemed the California Legislature the "best in the nation" in the mid-1960s. It was the Citizens Conference on State Legislatures, a private reform organization.

Current arguments used by L.A.'s supporters of easing council term limits were first trotted out when Proposition 140 was debated in 1990. Now they're back, cloaked in the reputed wisdom that comes with experience.

Term limits, goes one argument, denies elected officials the time needed to address and solve the big problems facing the city. In short, eight years are not enough.

Why not? As a friend reminded me, Hoover Dam, one of the engineering marvels of the world, was built in five years. Better yet, the U.S. put a man on the moon in just 10. But eight years apparently aren't sufficient for council members to accomplish anything of significance. If that's true, how do we know that 12 years will be the magic number?

Yes, term-limited officials often begin looking for their next post as soon as they win reelection. But there's no empirical evidence to suggest that they slack off or shirk the responsibilities of their office. If anything, these officials' ambitions to run for posts with larger constituencies may enhance their responsiveness to bigger problems.

Another argument against term limits is that they increase the influence of lobbyists, who have the time, incentive and expertise to dominate new and inexperienced elected officials. This assumes the incredible: Before term limits were imposed in L.A., City Hall was neither plundered nor controlled by influential lobbyists. But it was precisely such worries, in part, that led voters to approve limits in the first place.

The fact is, lobbyists have to work harder to connect with a steady influx of newly elected legislators, and their dealings with them are accordingly less predictable. It's hardly a surprise that business and labor interests have long been reliable opponents of term limits, and it's no surprise whatsoever that the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce backs the proposed change to the city's ordinance.

Champions of the special-interests-run-amok argument against term limits frequently cite a study by UC Berkeley professors Bruce Cain and Thad Kousser, published by the Public Policy Institute of California, on the effects of state legislative limits. The problem is that Cain and Kousser did not directly explore lobbyist power, nor did they offer, beyond a few anecdotal remarks from individuals they interviewed, any systematic evidence that it has swelled under term limits.

But a claim of special-interest clout may still be apt.

In the mid-1960s, the California Legislature was heralded by the National Conference of State Legislatures as "the best" in the nation. Yet a decade later, even proponents of this view began expressing strong dissatisfaction with the body. Assembly Speaker Jesse M. Unruh, who helped professionalize it, conceded that the "legislative process ... seems virtually hammer-locked by increasingly frequent personality and political conflicts."

By the 1980s, the state's professional legislators were considered "greedy, pampered, partisan, wasteful and arrogant," wrote Charles M. Price in "The Guillotine Comes to California: Term-Limit Politics in the Golden State." They were also said to be too dependent on special-interest money and to spend too much time raising it. Since its reputed mid-'60s status as "the best in the nation," the Legislature had become more partisan and corrupt, with an emphasis on personal careers.

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