Thursday, March 29, 2012

Tinkering with Term Limits, Doing In Democracy


Californians’ June ballots will feature, in addition to a very un-democratic Democratic primary and several men who have strayed out of either the funny farm or the nineteenth century on the Republican side of things, a measure aimed at tinkering with the state’s term limit laws.  At this point, legislators are permitted three two-year terms in the Assembly, plus two four-year terms in the Senate.  Proposition 28 would reduce the total time individuals can serve by two years, but allow them to spend all of their 12 years in either the Senate or Assembly.

Term limit laws are just over two decades old in California, and were passed in a populist pique aimed at making elections more competitive (incumbents tended to dominate legislative races), curb the influence of long-time political caudillos (Willie Brown in particular), and make things generally more Democratic.  Judging by the state we’re in, they haven’t been a great success.  Two years ago voters mandated nonpartisan redistricting in an effort to make elections more competitive.  Departing legislators don’t all get out of state politics...they often bounce around between other of the state’s elected offices.  And California continues to face a democratic deficit that should scare us far more than our financial one, because it has made the state ever more un-governable. 

If you insist on ignoring the big picture, as many commentators on California’s politics do, there are some merits to Prop 28.  Critics of term limits have insisted that they prevent legislators from coming to grips with the state’s problems, and that legislators, instead of learning the ropes and doing their job, focus too much on their next political berth.  Prop 28 would double the time a legislator could spend in the assembly, and increase by 50% that which Senators could serve.  Why cut the overall number of years, I don’t understand. 

But if you accept the premise of term limits, then you’ll be unhappy with Prop 28, because it arbitrarily extends the period during which legislators serve in a House of government—the precise thing that term limits were meant to curtail.  And if you are unhappy about term limits, Prop 28 doesn’t do away with them.  It is a reform unencumbered by any useful principle, or any accurate reading of our state’s challenges.

I think that my biggest problem with term limits is that they bespeak a lack of faith in our democracy.  Term limits are checks that people necessarily discuss in societies where there is a tendency towards open authoritarianism in government (and when I say authoritarianism, I’m not talking, as Republicans might think, about healthcare reform—I’m talking about places where kleptocratic presidents simply ignore votes, force people to queue vote, abuse people when the vote the ‘wrong’ way, and throw their opponents in prison).  Our own national government, with its obsession over secrecy in national security under successive administrations, and its waging of wars which make us less and less safe, often teeters over the brink of respectability.

But term limits do nothing to correct these kinds of abuses.  Likewise, they do nothing to close California’s democratic deficit.  Political abuse can continue freely, our legislators are less effective and pay less attention to underlying political problems, we continue to find ourselves in a state of political gridlock, and our politics continue to be soiled by contact with too much money.  Term limits have done nothing to address any of these problems, and have quite likely exacerbated some of them. 

All they are is a knee-jerk reaction, which substitutes a brainless ‘throw-the-bums out’ populism for a critical examination of what the real problem is.  Because as anyone who has the feeblest grasp on California’s political system must acknowledge, voters bear a large share of the blame for our impasse.  One minute we’ll idealistically pass some costly measure, and the next we’ll selfishly cross our arms and refuse to pay up, and legislators, hemmed in by the combination of ill-considered measures passed by an ignorant public on the one hand, and minority rule on the other, throw up their hands.  In fact, term limits are undemocratic, because they deny voters the right to re-elect someone they think is doing a good job.

If people wanted to make our politics more democratic, and our elections more competitive, they should embrace campaign finance reform, which would unshackle parties and candidates from the constraints imposed on them by wealthy interests.  They could tackle Prop 13, which does protect average homeowners, but which also creates a loophole for very affluent property owners and businesses.  Prop 13 also props up minority rule, which isn’t exactly democratic.  We could create a system of representation which would allow for a wider range of ideas in our legislature, and which would keep two parties from dominating.  Such a system of representation could also ensure better representation.  Multi-member districts, for example (for many more examples, and detailed explanations, read Joe Mathews and Mark Paul’s California Crackup), would ensure that right-leaning voters in Alameda County and left-leaning ones in Shasta County were represented. 

To me, Prop 28 smells like the kind of initiative that’s meant to convince people it’s doing something important, whereas in reality, it’s just another band-aid, the application of which will only very briefly forestall the need to come to grips with the real problems facing California: Prop 13, which created an absurdly undifferentiated property tax system while enshrining minority rule; our embrace of a two-party system which squeezes out ideas, debate, and honest politics; the bizarre assemblage of conventions (including Prop 13) which preserve tax details in the constitution, and require a supermajority to raise revenue while enabling a small majority to unilaterally shred our social system—which includes our schools, colleges, universities, welfare provision, environmental protection, resource management, all of which, directly or indirectly, benefit people from all economic and social backgrounds.

The real danger of Prop 13 is that, like so many other band-aids Californians have applied over the years, it promises to fix a broken system of governance by tinkering around the edges.  It is precisely this kind of often ill-informed and always-piecemeal tinkering which, the authors of California Crackup convincingly suggest, has brought us to this impasse.  We should stop deluding ourselves that small reforms will solve California’s problems.  When you add together decades of blind manoeuvring, it’s easy to see how such reforms could easily make things worse. 

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