When laws are made, there's no substitute for experience

On Maryland Politics

December 19, 1990|By Peter Kumpa

ONE OF THE oldest ideas in American politics -- term limitations -- is having a revival. The target now, however, is the legislative branch of government, not the executive. And the prime advocates of such limitations are taxpayer groups frustrated over the cost of government.

The Founding Fathers strongly favored limited terms, especially for the executive. They had been burned by kings and wanted no more of what they felt to be a tyrannical form of rule.

Maryland's 1776 Constitution, for example, opposed "a long continuance in the first executive departments of power or trust." The governor was then chosen by joint ballot of both houses and served for only one year. He was supposed to be "a person of wisdom, experience and virtue" but could stay in office no more than three consecutive terms -- a limitation befitting an office that was largely ceremonial.

In modern times, Maryland has limited the governor to two four-year terms. More than half the states also place some term ** limits on governors; only 21 states have no such limitations. Three states -- California, Colorado and Oklahoma -- have enacted term limits for state lawmakers as well. Curiously, California and Oklahoma place no limits on the terms of their chief executives.

In the coming legislative session in Annapolis, proposals to limit terms for General Assembly members are certain to be introduced. The minority Republicans are considering introducing term limits as part of a GOP legislative package. But the party label almost assures that any such bills will be defeated.

Yet Republicans may want an issue for future legislative elections, in which case even a defeat might work for them. On the other hand, the limitations could be generous -- say, a dozen years in either house -- and the GOP would still end up excluding their most thoughtful and capable lawmakers. They wouldn't have John Cade and Howard Denis in the Senate, and they have lost their minority leader in the House, Del. Ellen Sauerbrey, along with other capable delegates like Elizabeth Smith and Wade Kach.

Democrats, of course, stand to lose even more under a 12-year term limit. Had there been such a law, they would not have either of their present leaders, House Speaker Clay Mitchell or Senate President Mike Miller. Nor would they have had committee chairmen Walter Baker, Clarence Blount and Tom O'Reilly in the Senate or Tyras (Bunk) Athey, Casper Taylor, Anne Perkins and Charles J. Ryan in the House.

In general, term limitations would have wiped out the wisest and most experienced lawmakers of both parties in the legislature.

Professor Alan Rosenthal, an expert in state legislatures at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University, thinks Maryland has been lucky. He believes there is no need for term limitations here because the "natural process" has been steadily pruning the legislature every four years.

Some 10 percent of Maryland lawmakers, he concludes, leave by choice, either due to "burn out" or because they choose to run for higher office. Another 15 percent of incumbents lose their re-election bids. Thus the state brings in "new blood" at a better ++ rate than the national average.

Rosenthal opposes legislative term limitations. He argues that state legislative bodies need experienced hands who know the agenda, the process and the workings of state government. He considers the "memory" of old hands an "indispensable resource for a legislature." In such complex fields as the budget and various codes and formulas, lawmakers without personal familiarity with issues and events are forced to rely on staff. When their staffs let them down, the advantage invariably goes to the flocks of special interest lobbyists and to the executive branch.

Longevity is important in itself. In Florida, Rosenthal said, the practice of turning over the top legislative leaders every two years has meant "a rush to legislate" something significant. Revisions of the educational system there every two years have led only to confusion.

Longevity is also a critical factor in the legislature's exercise of its oversight function of state agencies, Rosenthal argues. It can be crucial in areas like transportation, prisons and the court system, all key parts of state government.

Experience always counts, Rosenthal sums up, for the legislature is truly "the arena in which society tries to resolve its conflicts." He favors incumbents in that role because they make the system work. And that's why, he believes, lawmakers get re-elected and stay.

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