SADOW: Term Limits Have Been Great For State Politics

The headline reads “Term limits have Louisiana politicians searching for new elections.” And that’s a good thing, despite that some contest that the overall term limits experience for Louisiana has been positive.

At the state level, the limits in question concern the three consecutive term limit for a legislator in the same office. It is diluted, because it allows limited members in one chamber to try to win election in the other, subverting to some degree the idea and allowing politicians to continue serving in an office nearly identical in power and scope. Because of this, interestingly the average length of continuous service in the Legislature at the beginning of 2004 for the typical senator, the last term before limits went into effect, was slightly shorter (just over 7 years) than in 2008, the first term affected by limits (almost 7¼) because of all that jumping.

(Keep in mind that now Pres. John Alario brought 36 years with him, skewing the average up by almost a point. When all was said and done, the 13 successful jumpers averaged a shade over 12 years in House experience, while the returning senators averaged just under 5 in their chamber. At the beginning of 2012, with 10 more jumpers successful – totaling now after a couple of early departures 21 of 39 – average years served by then nudged up almost a full year to over 8.)

But while the Senate crept up in terms of average consecutive tenure, the House’s indisputably fell as only one senator jumped back successfully. Yet at the same time, it’s never going to be that short, for assuming that no senators do try to jump back and only a few representatives quadrennially leave early one way or the other, the House average at a term beginning should be somewhere between 3-4 years given the rounded up or down three four-year term maximum.

Sure, by 2012 senators’ average was twice House members’, but does it convey that much of an advantage in terms of something oft quoted as a presumed shortcoming to term limits, “institutional knowledge?” Keep in mind that the most experienced House members, roughly a third, will have spent the same amount of time in the House as the typical senator, and will be chamber leaders for the most part. And, frankly, unless you’re an idiot four years is more than enough time to learn about the byways and folkways of the institution – it’s just not that complicated – so with the majority of House members presumably up to speed, the notion that the institution suffers from lack of “institutional knowledge” that requires excessive deferral to non-legislators is specious.

By contrast, it’s entirely advantageous that legislators be hampered from burrowing in one office. Even if (as my own academic research discovered) at the state legislative level in Louisiana term limitation produced closer alignment of district preferences and legislative voting behavior in only a narrow range of cases, in this political culture that historically placed so much emphasis on candidate image and so little on policy, anything that dampens the impact of personalism in politics – where politics become invested in individuals and the power they can wield to distribute resources to groups rather than in personality-neutral policy that determines distribution – only can be positive. Terms limits does precisely that, and perhaps it’s no accident therefore that the Legislature, led by the House, has assumed a mindset more amenable to change and reform in the past few years, demonstrated in areas such as elementary and secondary education, budgeting, health care, and higher education.

So, by all means let legislators look for sinecures in the Senate, statewide offices, local offices, and federal offices. Let those affected by term limits challenge those in different offices, who themselves may have captured those previously after being ushered out or encouraged to flee early by limits. The refreshment of political elites that goes on as a result, even if it still leaves some who have served many years consecutively across two or more offices, is better than any reduction in this circulation or recirculation.

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