Some call it musical chairs, the way every couple of years termed out state legislators either run for a different office or manage to get themselves appointed to some other position where they can keep their snouts in the public trough.
This, of course, is precisely what term limits were supposed to prevent. Passed in 1990 as Proposition 140, California’s limits allow any individual to serve just six years in the state Assembly and eight in the state Senate. That’s all. Statewide officials like the governor and insurance commissioner get two four-year terms in each office they may hold.
So why is it we keep seeing the same names in the news? (Don’t count Jerry Brown. The current and former governor was able to come back for at least one term and possibly another, which would give him a total of four, because he previously served well before passage of Proposition 140.)
The answer is that political power is addictive. Once a member of almost any city’s council or a county board has seen how much more power and influence and fund-raising ability the folks in Sacramento enjoy, there’s no way to get them back down on the farm.
While in office, the elected also accrue favors. Help out colleagues and when they move into a higher job with the power to appoint people to high-paying state commissions and boards, chances are they’ll help you out. The old routine of “you scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours.”
The prevalence of this kind of behavior contributes continually to the stalemate atmosphere in Sacramento, where gridlock and ideology have dominated for the last decade. Proposition 140, in a way, made this inevitable.
For from the moment a fresh Assembly member arrives in the Capitol, the prime aim is to make a career of this, to gain position for a run at whatever office represents the next rung on the ladder. Assembly members want to run for the state Senate; state Senators often plan runs for Congress or statewide office. Defy your party’s leadership and you’ll have no chance in the primary elections that are so often the real deciders in who gets elected.
That produces strict party-line voting, except on issues that don’t appear ideological. It’s why no Republican dares vote for any semblance of a new tax. It’s why Democrats rubber-stamp big union contracts and job guarantees for some public employees.
The movement of termed-out lawmakers onto state panels like the parole board and the Solid Waste Management Board has been well documented. For Republicans, the way was greased while Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor. Even then, because Democrats controlled the Legislature and its leaders appoint some members of boards like the Coastal Commission, there was no dearth of opportunity for them.
Until now, this was all seat-of-pants, anecdotal knowledge without scientific merit. But the numbers were at last quantified in a summertime report from the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, which finds that the political class today is just as persistent and insistent and opportunistic as it was in pre-term limit days. Maybe more so.
The report notes that in the 1980s, 60 percent of Assembly members and 30 percent of state senators either ran for some other office or landed a plush government appointment when they left office. Yes, those legislators usually stayed in each office longer than they do today.
But the overall numbers are very similar. In 2008, 60 percent of termed-out Assembly members and 40 percent of termed-out senators stayed in government employment. Most continued on with salaries over $100,000, in many cases taking home more than they did while in elected office. It’s a sure sign that who you come to know and how you treat them is at least as important as what you might know.
The termed-out these days may not stay in appointive office very long. In many cases, their new slots – often entailing no more than two meetings per month – last just two or four years. Still, these jobs make a cushy halfway house back into real life and the need to get and hold an actual job.
Back in 1990, Proposition 140 was billed as something that would encourage Cincinnatus-style public service – people who, like the legendary Roman general – would leave home, serve for awhile and then gladly return home.
No such luck. For term limits have fostered both government gridlock, unwillingness to compromise and the continuation of a persistent, semi-permanent political class.
Which means term limits have failed, even though every poll shows they remain one of the most popular aspects of California government.