Last week, my report recommending term limits for Wisconsin legislators was released. Reaction both for and against term limits has been rolling in, and it cuts across ideological lines. Conservative blogger Owen Robinson opposes them. Conservative radio talk show host Charlie Sykes supports them.

Liberal Ed Garvey’s position is, as usual, incomprehensible. He claims I have a “hidden agenda” to have “well financed opponents” take over the Legislature. But when he ran a failed campaign for governor against Tommy Thompson in 1998, Garvey said:

Thompson has amassed so much influence during his record span in the governor’s post that it’s time to enact term limits, Garvey said.

”He’s been in there so long that every agency of government has been dominated by his intellectual playmates,” Garvey said. ”And not only that, he’s built up the kind of campaign war chest that makes it impossible for him to be challenged.”

This is pretty much par for the course with Garvey. The next time he orders a pizza and it doesn’t have enough pepperoni on it, he’ll probably angrily blog about how it’s WPRI’s fault.

Perhaps the most interesting voice in opposition is that of the Capital Times’ John Nichols, who surprisingly gives me credit for “diagnosing” the Legislature’s problems correctly, but labels term limits a “lame” remedy. His editorial is even-handed (which is nice, since I have occasionally – and for good reason – been harshly critical of him), but still contains some questionable assertions.

For instance, Nichols says my “proposal would mirror the failed schemes enacted in other states, such as California, where legislatures have been rendered almost dysfunctional.” This is one of the reasons the effects of term limits are so difficult to measure – because states’ laws and situations are so disparate – and why I specifically cite California in my report.

First of all California is a Banana Republic not because of term limits – its main problem is the statewide referendum process, in which citizens directly enact laws, many of which directly contradict one another. No such process exists in Wisconsin. Furthermore, in order to pass a budget in California, the Legislature needs a 2/3rds vote – which leads to some disastrous remedies for their fiscal problems. Most notably, their state debt is off the charts, as Democrats try to buy Republican votes. None of these, of course, have to do with term limits.

Nichols goes on:

Wisconsinites have historically said “no thanks” to term limits because we are too smart to be suckered by political gimmicks – and because we have a taste for democracy.

Not exactly. “Wisconsinites” haven’t said “no thanks” to term limits – Wisconsin legislators have shunned them, for obvious reasons – they like the job security. Polls consistently show public support for term limits – two years ago, 72% of Wisconsin residents said they support them. In fact, in 20 of the 21 states that have enacted term limits, they have been imposed via citizen initiative – not by the Legislature. So “Wisconsinites” support them – it’s only the legislators who do not.

Nichols makes a pitch for public funding of campaigns, commonly referred to as campaign finance “reform.” He adds that “(t)hese changes would also reduce the ability of special-interest groups to influence the process in a manner that is far more destructive than aging and unproductive legislators.”

Actually, term limits could drastically reduce the influence of special interests over legislators. When elected officials sit in office for decades, they have plenty of time to cozy up to special interests, becoming inextricably linked to their agendas. Term limits breaks that never-ending link. And while it doesn’t guarantee any elected official won’t be corrupt (no law ever will), it means special interests will have to work a lot harder to maintain their foothold within the Wisconsin Legislature.

Finally, Nichols makes a point good enough to reproduce in its entirety here:

And here’s one more reform proposal: If you want legislators to write more bills, clean up the budget process. In recent years, the budget has become a catch-all that is jammed with policy initiatives. When the budget drafting process is the be-all and end-all of the legislative session, a handful of lawmakers on the Joint Finance Committee become the definitional players, while everyone else sits on the sidelines. And debates are scrapped in favor of back-room bargaining.

There is one final criticism of the report that I have been hearing primarily from conservatives. In the report, I point out that the typical legislator is getting older, staying in office longer, and working less. As evidence of their lack of work, I point out that legislators are introducing fewer bills than ever. To which many conservatives say, “GOOD!”

While I am sympathetic with the idea that fewer bills means fewer bad laws, there are couple points to make here. First of all, there are a lot of bad laws on the books that should be repealed. And it takes a bill to repeal a bad law.

For instance, a couple of years ago, lawmakers realized that church potlucks might be illegal under state law. It took a bill to allow granny to bring her peach cobbler to help raise money for the church. More seriously, we recently found out via a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigative report that up to 12,000 DNA samples may never have been collected from felons, thereby posing a significant safety risk. Now legislators are proposing a more rigid DNA collection process. It takes a bill to do that. Not all bills are bad.

Furthermore, there are at least a dozen ways listed in the report that show how the Legislature has changed – the lack of bills introduced is merely one. When put together, all the evidence paints a picture of a typical legislator as being older, less active, and much less likely to lose. The issue of bills introduced is but one aspect of a broad report.

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