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Capitol Perspectives: Term Limits

Phill Brooks
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Photo: UPI/Bill Greenblatt

Photo: UPI/Bill Greenblatt

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If you had to pick one factor to explain the difficulties encountered during the 2012 session of Missouri’s legislature, it would have to be term limits. That’s the consensus from almost every senior lobbyist and former legislator with whom I’ve discussed the session.

Missouri’s General Assembly of today is a very different institution from what I had covered before members were limited to eight years in each chamber.

Because there has been so much attention on the negative aspects of term limits, I’ll start with a couple of the positive changes.

A big winner has been local governments that have gained the service of term-limited legislators with a deep reservoir of knowledge about state government and public policy. Prior to term limits, it was rare that a state lawmaker would give up a legislative seat for local office.

St. Charles County got as its administration director Chuck Gross, who had been a skilled Senate Appropriations Committee chairman. Franklin County got as presiding commissioner John Griesheimer, who had been the Senate’s top expert on local government.

Another positive effect is the reduction in the arrogance of power that developed among some legislators who had been in office for decades. I’ve watched two House speakers marched off to federal prison for corruption charges that reflected that arrogance. I’ve seen that arrogance displayed when long-term legislators belittled and humiliated agency officials in committee hearings.

As for the negative effects of term limits, they are far too numerous to cover them all in this column. Among the most significant that have been mentioned to me:

  • Term limits have made the Senate a far more chaotic institution. Before term limits, there were constraints on legislators using the filibuster for minor or frivolous reasons.
  • A senator would be killing bills of colleagues with whom he or she expected to continue serving for years. Senate leaders making private threats, such as budget cuts or promises of future committee assignments, had more effect when the member expected to be around for years.
  • Legislative leaders now exercise far more power. It’s an obvious consequence of having so many new members unsure of how the process works or of their individual rights as members.
  • A colleague of mine, Prof. David Valentine at the Truman School of Public Administration, notes that closed-door party caucuses have become a more significant component in crafting legislative positions. At these private meetings, legislative leaders can educate members and influence priorities to a degree that was not seen in the years before term limits.
  • The caucuses are almost weekly now in the House, and there are calls for the Senate to adopt a similar approach.
  • It used to be that the order of bills on a chamber’s calendar meant something. The sooner a bill got introduced and approved by a committee, the higher it was on the calendar and the greater the chances of ultimate passage.
  • As a result, respect for calendar placement gave members and committees significant influence in determining the order of the legislature’s priorities. Now, however, legislative leaders are allowed to skip around a calendar without a peep of objection from their obedient colleagues.
  • There has not been the influx of new ideas and perspectives that champions of term limits had predicted. Instead, what I’ve witnessed has been a legislature that’s much more predictable in the issues it addresses and the approaches it takes.
  • There is more ideological rigidity today. We saw that this year, I think, with the time the legislature spent on nonbinding resolutions concerning a variety of national ideological and partisan issues.
  • Missouri’s term-limited legislature appears unable to undertake multi-year efforts to craft solutions to the more difficult and complex issues facing the state.
  • For example, the health dangers from rural sewage pollution at state parks and lakes that made front-page headlines just a few years ago remain unsolved and now appear abandoned by the legislature.
  • Legislators are less able to craft their own bills and amendments. That’s given lobbyists, special interests and legislative staff enhanced influence over the process because they’re writing a lot more of the legislation.
  • Some legislators complain that term limits have caused administration officials and bureaucrats to take them less seriously. “They don’t show up, they don’t answer our questions,” complained Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, at a committee hearing earlier this year.
  • A similar complaint was voiced to the Senate by Sen. Ryan McKenna, D-Jefferson County, that bureaucrats “know we’re going to be gone from here in a short time, that they don’t have to listen to us anymore.” McKenna speaks with a unique perspective: His dad, Bill McKenna, was the first sitting Senate president pro tem forced out of office because of term limits.
  • With only a few years before being term limited out of office, it’s created almost a perpetual campaign mode for some legislators who focus more attention on future political plans than on building a legislative record.
  • Finally, I’ve seen term limits have a deleterious effect on a few legislators during their last year in office. Some get bitter at being forced out. Some seem to almost “check out” with a melancholy that the legislative skills and knowledge they’ve developed no longer will be of use. It’s only a very few I’ve seen affected this way, but it costs Missouri the full attention of some of its most experienced legislators.

As always, let me know (at column@mdn.org) if you have any comments. If you would like your comments, or a portion of them, included in a future column, let me know and be sure to include your full name in your email. Past columns are available at www.mdn.org/mpacol or here.

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