Can Term Limits Save Rhode Islander Democracy?

One of the ideas I’ve seen thrown out in the wake of Speaker Fox being charged and pleading guilty for “bribery, wire fraud and filing a false tax return,” is the idea of term limits for state legislators. But there’s a reason I didn’t include it in my last post.

Reflexively, it seems like a good idea. Even Jack Abramoff has suggested term limits as a reform. Former state senator Dawson Hodgson introduced term limit legislation during his time, as has current Representative John Lombardi.

But the mixed-results of term limits demonstrate the problems here. In the states that have tried term limits, it’s not as straightforward as “term limits were enacted and things got better.” The Joint Project on Term Limits has some good reading on this, from 2005 and 2006. They find that in states that enacted term limits the following happened:

  • Turnover increased, especially in the first year
  • Legislatures did not get more diverse
  • Legislative leaders are less experienced
  • Legislative leaders are less respected when they become lame ducks
  • Conversely, legislative leaders can become more powerful by dominating fundraising for their caucuses
  • Committees have grown inexperienced and ineffective at halting legislation (both good and bad)
  • Legislative staff have grown more important
  • Nonpartisan staff have grown reluctant to offer policy advice, increasing the importance of partisan staff
  • Legislators are less civil and collegiate with one another
  • “Legislative champions” — those with deep knowledge on a particular issue and know how to craft and pass appropriate legislation for it — are growing extinct
  • The executive branch has more dominance when it comes to spending and budgets
  • Legislators are less knowledgeable when it comes to asking questions of the executive branch
  • Lobbyists are relied on more for information about policy
  • Lobbying is harder because it is difficult to build up long-term relationships
  • Lobbyists don’t need to be as scrupulous due to the short-term nature of legislative relationships
  • Legislators are more likely to distrust lobbyists
  • Quality of legislation does not appear to have changed

There’s things on that list to like, and then there are things that are bad. The problem with proposals like Rep. Lombardi’s of six years or Fmr. Sen. Hodgson’s of eight is that they’re too short for Rhode Island, where we don’t have enough staffers to help make freshman legislators more effective, when our terms are only two years for both chambers, and where our legislature is already composed of part-timers.

For the current session, the average Representative has just over 6 and a half years of experience; the average Senator has nearly 10. There’s a lot to debate about whether people who began their service a half-decade or a decade ago can remain relevant to their constituents, but we can say that the average member of the General Assembly has years of experience (even the median rep has 4 years of experience, and the median senator has 7 years). There’s a reason leadership in the General Assembly tends to be drawn from each chamber’s greybeards.

At the end of the day, term limits are an inelegant solution to a problem of accountability. General Assembly members tend to have districts drawn in their favor and are difficult to unseat in elections. Term limits sidestep this issue, drawing an arbitrary line in time to force incumbents out. However, they fail to address the underlying issues of uncompetitive districts and the difficulty of holding office in a part-time legislature.

That said, I could see a term limit law that set limits on consecutive terms served (as opposed to total terms served) that could easily take their place alongside an omnibus package of reforms, including a professionalization of the General Assembly with full time pay, hours, and dedicated staff.

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