Monday, July 10, 2006

Testing Limits


It is rare that I turn to the city of Los Angeles in a search for sanity.
But according to published reports, there is a movement afoot in L.A. to extend the tenure of elected officials from two terms to three.
That's right, folks, they're taking a monkey wrench to term limits. And not a moment too soon.
According to a story in the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters have decided that what term limits actually do is create a whirlwind of office shuffling while elevating the power of bureaucrats and lobbyists.
"...The difficulty of getting things done requires a good deal of time and a sustained commitment to a vision," said George Kieffer, a law firm partner and key player in the Civic Alliance, another powerful group expressing interest in the proposal. "That's more and more difficult to do with people looking at short-term horizons and other offices."
I'm surprised it took the good and visionary people of Los Angeles this long to see that term limits aren't working.
All they needed to do was gaze northward to the sort of chaos that exists in the state legislature to see what actually gets limited in Sacramento is leadership, constructive compromise and vision. As our action-hero governor has discovered.
For the record, Assembly members are limited to three terms of two years each. State senators serve two four-year terms.
Given the steep learning curve, the reelection demands and abundant number of adjournments, the time spent in actual governance is shockingly limited.
I did some reporting out of Sacramento at one point in my career. I thnk the thing that struck me most was the turnover, especially at the committee chair and speaker level and the void in leadership and institutional knowledge that it ultimately created.
I admired Bob Hertzberg when he was speaker of the Assembly. He was visionary, adept at molding bi-partisan consensus and energetic. And he wasn't around long enough to accomplish one-tenth of his agenda.
Lame duck leaders get no respect and it seems in Sacramento, everyone is a lame duck.
There were subtler problems. There seemed to be a dependence on lobbyists and other special interests types in Sacramento who often had a better take on the issues becasue they had been around longer.
Most importantly, a Public Policy Institute study showed that legislators operating under term limits screen out fewer bills assigned to them and are more likely to see their work rewritten at later stages.
The practice of hijacking Assembly bills, gutting their contents andamending them thoroughly in the Senate, has increased sharply.
In addition, legislative oversight of the executive branch has declined significantly, according to the study. There is a widespread sense in Sacramento that something needs to be done soon to provide more stability and expertise to theLegislature's policymaking process.
And last but not least, while term limits may have had the noble intent of abolishing career politicians and power mongers like Jess Unruh and Willie Brown, what they have in fact created is a new kind of career pol. The new model operates out of suticase.
The city council in Los Angeles, for example, includes two former state legislators who were termed out. Another announced his intent to run for state Senate only weeks after being reelected. In fact, the mayor himself is a former Assembly speaker who walked the term plank.
My favorite take on term limits comes from David S. Border, writing in the Washington Post:
"If bankers were limited to 12 years in their jobs, for example, would we logically expect that loan policies would become more prudent? Hardly. The knowledge that they won't be around when repayment time comes would probably impel them to gin up the volume of loan approvals and let their successors worry about those that are, in banking jargon, "nonperforming."
"As Tom Lehrer wrote in his wonderful song about the German-born missile-designer of famously flexible loyalties, "Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department, says Wernher von Braun."
Let's hope that the rocket being launched in Los Angeles lands in Sacramento.

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