Friday, January 26, 2007

Don't blame me for term limits

Not guilty!

The liberals have gone and upset Bob Dunning of The Davis Enterprise. It seems that Bob just noticed that we're about to lose Lois Wolk as our representative in the State Assembly. Bob thinks that liberals are to blame.

(January 23, 2007) So long, Lois ... whichever so-called “progressive” came up with the notion of term limits should be taken behind the woodshed and banned from voting for the next 40 election cycles ... I mean, there I was, minding my own business and reading the front page of the Sunday Enterprise when I stumbled upon a story with the headline “Five names emerge early for 8th Assembly District.” ... and all I could think was “Lois, we hardly knew ya.” ...

“With Wolk reaching the end of her allowable three terms or six years in office next year,” the story noted, “someone new will be taking her place as the representative of the 8th Assembly District.” ... poof, just like that, no more Lois ... and I asked myself why on earth we would do this to ourselves .. just when Lois is hitting her stride, she's gone.”

Don't blame me, Bob. This liberal voted against Proposition 140 in 1990, which nevertheless passed by a narrow margin and imposed ridiculously draconian limits on our legislators' terms. We may value experience in most other professions, but we Californians seem to prefer our legislators callow and disoriented. It's a dirty shame. And liberals did not draft Proposition 140 or organize the campaign that enacted it into law. It was conservatives.

I know the source of Bob's confusion, because he told me himself. When I gently corrected his mistake about Proposition 140, Dunning simply replied that “Many of my friends, who claim to be ‘progressives,’ were very much in favor of term limits.” It's the “some of my best friends are—” defense. I'll grant him this much: there are undoubtedly plenty of progressive good-government types who think term limits are a good way to stir up the pot and ensure broader representation in elected bodies. Term limits probably accelerated the arrival of more women and minorities in the legislative ranks, although that trend was already well established in California before the voters installed rapidly revolving doors on the State Capitol. Some progressives concerned about entrenched incumbents—particularly if they were friends of Bob, apparently—might have been suckered into casting a vote in favor of a right-wing power play.

A short history lesson

The right-wing power player behind Proposition 140 was Peter Schabarum, a disgruntled former legislator who followed his service in the State Capitol with a lengthy stint on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors (1972 to 1991; Schabarum favored term limits only for other people). His initiative contained a provision that gutted the generous legislative retirement system, but that was probably mostly window dressing to attract the support of resentful voters. Schabarum was eager to enact the term limits that would end Democratic domination of the state legislature and, in particular, bring to a close the long reign of Willie Brown of San Francisco as Speaker of the Assembly. Schabarum was joined in his push for term limits by Lewis K. Uhler of the National Tax Limitation Committee. In brief, the leadership of the Proposition 140 was an assembly of all of the usual right-wing suspects.

Proposition 140's victory in the 1990 general election did not quite deliver the results that its conservative sponsors had hoped for. While the legislative pension system was abolished and the term-limit clock began to tick for all of the incumbents in office, Speaker Brown soon demonstrated that his hold on the legislature was perhaps a bit shaken, maybe slightly stirred, but by no means broken. He remained ensconced in the Speaker's office till nearly the end of the his six-year limit.

While subsequent elections chipped away at Brown's majority (some of his allies grabbed opportunities to run for seats in Congress, where term limits did not apply), Brown's power survived even the narrow Republican victory of 1994. He peeled one crucial vote away from the Republican caucus, negating their majority and permitting himself to be re-elected as Speaker with the aid of his Democratic minority. Before he left the Assembly to take office as mayor of San Francisco in 1996, Brown continued to deny the speakership to the leader of the Republican caucus, twice engineering the election of GOP mavericks as his short-term successors. The Republican caucus finally managed to install one of their own as Speaker once Brown was gone, but the GOP speakership was ended a few months later by the Democratic return to power in the 1996 election.

The advent of term limits in California state politics was as dramatic as a professional wrestling match and just about as pertinent to the goal of good government. After more than sixteen years of the term-limit experiment, the legislature continues to be populated by careerists, except that they now are forever climbing over one another to switch from the State Assembly to the State Senate (or vice versa) and seizing every opportunity to seek election to Congress.

Term limits? Bah, humbug!

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