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BUKOWSKY: Change the Terms of the Limits

It’s been more than 25 years since Missouri passed term limits. And, just as it was time for 1990s boy band star Justin Timberlake to be bringing “Sexy Back,” the time was ripe for Senator Jason Holsman to bring term limits back up.

The Missouri Constitution restricts the number of years a person may serve in its General Assembly to 16 years total, and further restricts service to eight years in each chamber.

Holsman’s SJR 27 would, if approved by the voters, retain the 16-year limit, but remove the eight-year per chamber limits, thus enabling an individual to serve all 16 years in one chamber of the General Assembly.

Missouri is one of 15 term-limited states and is one of only six states with lifetime term limits. The other nine term-limited states limit the number of years an individual can serve consecutively, not throughout one’s lifetime.  Fun fact: Missouri ranks No. 2 in the nation for shortest lifetime term limits.

Term Limits’ Baggage

Every time I go to a national conference like CPAC, I meet a resident of a non-term-limited state who passionately believes that term limits should be implemented at both the state and federal levels. But, based on Missouri’s experience, I’m not convinced that term limits are the cure for political ills that its proponents believe. Nor do proponents seem to understand the problems that term limits create, including the undesirable shifts of focus and power of the various players in the Capitol.

Shift of Focus      

If you took a job and were told you would be fired by a certain date no matter how well you performed, how would that impact you? It would probably be difficult to focus solely on performing your best at your current job.  If you are like me, you’d probably spend a lot of time thinking about how your decisions impact your future employment prospects, and how to best position yourself to get the job you wanted next.

Sound familiar? Members of the General Assembly are often so preoccupied by the job they want next that they don’t worry about performing the job we elected them to do now. I know some of them would be this way regardless, but the expiration dates we place on every member is an endless source of distraction to everyone in the building.

Shift of Power 

Another drawback of term limits is that they shift power from the duly elected representatives to individuals who are not accountable to the people.

By the time many members of the General Assembly gain the policy expertise, institutional knowledge, and political savvy to do their jobs well, they’ve termed out. And before that point, legislators are often outmatched and outmaneuvered by experienced and shrewd lobbyists.

Even when lobbyists encounter a member of the General Assembly with the skills to keep them in check, lobbyists can outmaneuver that member by simply waiting him/her out. I observed Senator Jason Crowell single-handedly stop government growth by saying “no” to all the new costs, fines, and fees that state and local government lobbyists cooked up to take money out of the pockets of the people who earned it. But after Crowell termed out, that bulwark against government greed no longer remained. The prosecutors were able to pass their terrible slush-fund restitution bill by simply waiting for Crowell to leave the Senate. (Lobbyists of many stripes likely celebrated when he termed out).

The Two Chambers Should Have Different Term Limits

Holsman’s proposal would ameliorate the pressure that a “fired no later than” date causes by allowing members to serve up to 16 years in one chamber. If it were enacted, fewer members will have expiration dates on the immediate horizon, and more will be focused on doing their current job rather than fixating on their next role.

However, Holsman’s proposal does not address major differences in the cost/benefit analysis of term limits between chambers.

Proponents argue that term limits make office holders more responsible toward their constituents because they will soon become constituents themselves, and that fresh blood will reduce the potential corruption caused by power.

But if power corrupts, then the members of the 34-seat chamber would be more susceptible to corruption than the ones in the 163-seat chamber. So why do we treat members of those two chambers as equals when it comes to term limits?

No Limits in the House

Reasons to expand or eliminate term limits in the House:

  1. Members of the House have less power, and are thus less likely to become corrupted;
  2. State Representatives are kept in check by having to face reelection every other year;
  3. If we want the power to stay closer to the people, we should allow individuals to serve in the House long enough to obtain the policy expertise, institutional knowledge, and political savvy to outmaneuver powerful lobbyists;
  4. Long-serving House members could mentor the new members who are elected to serve alongside them. (This is preferable to them being mentored by former members and other folks who are now, as lobbyists, literally in the building to serve special interests).

Consecutive — Not Lifetime — Limits in the Senate

Members of the Senate have more power than members of the House, so there is a slightly stronger case to impose term limits upon them. But problems created by term limits hurt the Senate, too.

I think a better solution is to limit individuals to serving no more than eight years in the Senate consecutively, instead of limiting them to eight years served in a lifetime. Of the minority of states that have term limits at all, most of them limit consecutive years in office; they do not impose lifetime bans. We should consider modifying our Senate term limits to consecutive years, too.

If we do lengthen the term limits in the Senate, I’ll get to work on bringing Jason Crowell back, ASAP.