Dennis Myers: term limits limit smart lawmaking

I once knew a state legislator who served just one term. He was elected to the Nevada Assembly and made a good record. But he was young and serving wreaked havoc with his relatively new law practices. So after just two years, he stepped down.

That happens a lot in Nevada. Although Nevada has term limits, I think more lawmakers leave under their own power than by being pushed out, suggesting that we adopted a solution without a problem.

When term limits were on the ballot, there were warnings that the influence of lobbyists and legislative staffers – who are not elected or term limited – would grow under term limits. Both have happened. In the case of lobbyists, this has created a throwback.

During the 1960s, many state legislatures developed research, legal, and fiscal staff so that legislators did not need to rely on lobbyists so much for information, causing lobbyists to lose some of their influence. Term limits have returned them to their previous influence.

And legislators are accountable to voters. Lobbyists and staffers are not. Thus we have two groups that now have greater power and are not answerable to voters. That’s a great advance.

Nevada voters approved term limits in 1996, and officials elected in 1998 were the first elected under the new law, so term limits first took effect in 2010.

The number of women legislators did increase after term limits came in, though whether it had anything to do with senior officials being pushed out is uncertain because the same thing happened in states without term limits.

The departure of veteran legislators meant that some procedures and rituals were eliminated. That sometimes simplified legislative process. But between lawmakers who stepped down of their own volition and those who departed in response to term limits, legislators often leave office when they got really good at their jobs, getting things done for their districts and constituents with skill and ability.

In addition, there is my favorite quality in any legislator – institutional memory. I know of at least two legislators who called for new laws only to discover that the measures had already been enacted into law earlier. If there were more legislators with longer experience, that kind of thing would not happen. More important, experience means that a legislator knows what happened the last time this governing technique or that program was tried, whether it was successful or not.

U.S. Term Limits president Philip Blumel has said, “Under a seniority system where incumbents statistically cannot lose, change is not really possible.”

A legislative seniority system has nothing to do with elections. Voters are always free to defeat incumbents. If they choose not to, that is liberty. Enacting sweeping term limits that become permanent mean we have little faith in our system of government – and that we are willing to bind not just ourselves to undemocratic process, but that we feel our children and grandchildren should not be trusted with the vote. If we think terms should be limited, we can do it with our votes and getting other voters to join us. And if we fail, we can accept the democratic judgment of all voters.

And contrary to what Blumel said, change is always possible where there is seniority. It is rarely the first termers who accomplish things in parliamentary settings. And it is always the senior members they turn to for help. Blumel’s problem is that the change he wants does not come to pass under current legislators. He is trying to win with term limits victories he cannot win with democracy.

One of the peculiarities of this issue is that it is a classic strange bedfellows case.

Democrats and John Birchers agree, with the John Birch Society offering a smart argument: “While term limits may seem like a great idea to help limit the destructiveness of big-government politicians, term limits also force Constitution-abiding statesmen out of office. An educated electorate will elect genuine constitutionalists who abide by their oath of office. The short cut of term limits is not a long-term solution. The John Birch Society supports freedom at the ballot box and therefore opposes term limits.”

On the other hand, Republicans and libertarians agree on this. That is less surprising but paradoxical. Normally, nothing stops libertarians from supporting liberty.

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.