Throw the bums out! It's a cry heard across the political spectrum when voters aren't happy with their elected officials. Last year in Cuyahoga County, the refrain led to Issue 6 and a new charter government. In the early '90s, it brought us legislative term limits in Ohio and more than a dozen other states.
But almost two decades later, some are asking whether term limits are still a good idea. Among the charges are that it robs the legislature of institutional memory, makes it more partisan, and increases the role of money. Yet its original sponsor and some good-government advocates believe it's been successful.
In 1992, Ohio passed an amendment that limited state legislators to eight years of consecutive service. It was part of a national movement driven by a nonprofit called U.S. Term Limits, which still supports the cause. In Ohio, term limits were promoted by David Zanotti of the Solon-based conservative group American Policy Roundtable.
Republican state Senator Tim Grendell refers to Zanotti as "the godfather of term limits in Ohio." Democratic state Representative Barbara Boyd calls him "the mastermind."
"We never predicted term limits would fix the problem of the ruling class in America, but we thought it would help," says Zanotti. "We're very comfortable with the resurgence with rotation in office, particularly as it relates to replacing leaders in the House and Senate.
"You can't get a single speaker that can sit there for 32 years, as we saw during the reign of [longtime Ohio House Speaker] Verne Riffe. At that time the only way you could get a bill passed in Ohio was go to Verne's favorite watering hole and start buying drinks, get an appointment, and cut a deal. He was holding court every night for 30 years. I think the change is apparent, and I think much for the better. Changing it is not on the radar."
But in recent years, Ohio Democrats and Republicans alike have expressed dissatisfaction with term limits. In January 2007, the Associated Press reported that state Democratic Party chairman Chris Redfern and then-Republican chair Bob Bennett wanted to extend terms of service to 12 years. That never happened.
In May, The Columbus Dispatch reported that Redfern and Bennett's successor, Kevin DeWine, were revisiting the issue and agreed to tackle it after this November's election — although DeWine told The Dispatch, "It has to bubble up from the grassroots and can't be forced down the throats of voters. Candidly, I don't see an appetite from voters."
The ability to shepherd legislation over a period of time — to educate fellow legislators and grow consensus — is something some legislators point to as a drawback of term limits.
Boyd served in the House from 1992-2000 and returned in 2006. When she got back, she was stunned to learn that a diabetes education bill she'd worked on in 1994 still hadn't passed. "It took 15 years to pass a bill 45 other states passed," says Boyd, who blames an often-lengthy education process.
Term-limited Representative Dan Stewart points to the same problem with a bill he's championed that would bar discrimination against gay and lesbian citizens in housing and employment. It finally passed the House with bipartisan support this year, but remains stalled in the Senate.
"By the time it passed the House, there were over 30 co-sponsors," Stewart says. "The first time I had maybe five or six. There was lots of education going on for years that this isn't about marriage, it's not about special rights. You see people leaving halfway through something they've been working very hard on, and it takes a while for someone else to pick up the gauntlet."
Catherine Turcer, from the nonprofit political advocacy group Ohio Citizen Action, sees it another way.
"I understand when people say, 'We have term limits: They're called elections,'" she adds. "But incumbency often rules the day, and term limits shake that up. Since 2000, every incumbent Ohio senator has won — every single one. I understand people being frustrated with term limits, but a lot of other factors feed into the difficulty in getting good policy. Why not tackle redistricting reform? Why not tackle campaign finance reform? Why not look at the role of lobbyists?"
Grendell initially liked term limits. But he found they didn't live up to his expectations, making legislators overeager to pass legislation that warrants more time for consideration and creating a climate of increased partisanship fueled by the need for newcomers to rely on party leadership for fundraising.
"I thought it would open the door to a fresh group of legislators who, over time, would be replaced by another fresh group of legislators with fresh energy and new ideas," he says. "But because terms are only eight years, a newly elected legislator can't establish himself or herself in the community. Newly elected representatives are pushed into spending a lot of money to get name recognition, so they tend to have to support senior leadership of the party on issues that are sometimes contrary to the best interest of their community. The idea that we were going to create independent-minded legislators tied less to politics and more to policy — I can tell you from the inside it's not happening."
Stewart notes that the decrease in camaraderie is happening between and within the parties. "You see people climbing over friends in their own party because they know they have limited time to get into leadership or chairmanship of a committee," he says.
Almost everyone cites loss of institutional memory.
"All your collective knowledge is erased every eight years," says Grendell. "Next year is going to be the most challenging budget in Ohio in the last perhaps 60 years. It's probably not a good year to have a mass group of inexperienced folks coming into the legislature."
Grendell is among a handful of legislators who have worked around term limits by moving from chamber to chamber. He was elected to fill his wife's House seat in 2000 when she was elected to a judgeship, then he moved to the Senate in 2004. Now, with Matt Dolan bowing out to run for Cuyahoga County executive, Grendell is running for his old House seat again.
Grendell's goal is to stay ahead of the ultimate term limit. "When the people of Geauga County don't want me anymore," he says, "that would be the term limit."
Zanotti and Redfern agree there's no fault in Grendell's maneuvering. "Not only did we anticipate that happening — we specifically left that door open," Zanotti says. "Other states had a political death penalty: Eight years and you're done. But the idea isn't to tell people you can't be a career politician. It's to say you can't stay in one office forever."
So why do term limits continue to be popular with the public?
"The same reason they watch an accident on I-90," says Redfern. "When politics are polarizing, they grab our attention. It doesn't make challenges easier to solve, but it makes for good television."
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