The reality of term limits [Editorial]

Our view: Restricting how long Maryland's delegates and senators can serve in office may sound attractive, but the reality is likely to disappoint

January 01, 2014

In the Maryland General Assembly, newly-elected lawmakers inevitably have one experience in common. Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, rural or urban, it doesn't matter. When they arrive at the State House, they soon discover that the management of government and the issues they face are a lot more complicated than what they'd envisioned on the campaign trail.

That's not to suggest first-term legislators are ill-informed or uneducated. Often, they are well suited for the job — better than their predecessors in many cases. It's just that actual governance — learning the ins and outs of government and of their fellow lawmakers — is a difficult business that takes time to learn and even longer to master.

That's just one reason why term limits seldom, if ever, accomplish what their advocates claim. It is an idea that sounds great in theory but not in practice — much like the sort of rhetoric that politicians spout when they are running for office but learn doesn't get them very far when it's time to write laws or develop coalitions within a diverse legislature.

Yet that never seems to stop the term limit crowd, particularly those who are on the outside of decision-making power looking in. Enter Western Maryland Republican Delegate Michael J. Hough who recently announced plans to introduce legislation that would restrict delegates and senators to no more than three four-year terms in office.

Delegate Hough's complaints about the current system — one that dares to allow voters alone to decide how long elected officials remain in office — are familiar. He wants to take power out of the hands of the few who are in charge in Annapolis, including House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who between them have been in the State House for close to a combined seven decades.

No doubt that possibility plays pretty well in Washington and Frederick counties, which Mr. Hough represents and where, not coincidentally, a secession movement has recently arisen. Rural, conservative voters are often frustrated living in a state where they are greatly outnumbered by urban and suburban residents who don't necessarily share their political views.

But if they find Messrs. Busch and Miller too liberal for their liking, they may feel even worse about who might take their place if term limits were enforced. There would no longer be an orderly path to leadership through committee vice-chairmanships and chairmanships, at least not one that allowed for experience and seasoning. And those elected to the top jobs would inevitably be regarded as lame-ducks, so their ability to maintain discipline within their ranks would be greatly lessened.

At least that's been the experience in the 20 or so states where term limits ended up giving greater power to committee staff (and usually resulted in expanding the size of that staff) and diminished the power of the legislature itself. That would be a real coup for whomever serves as Maryland's governor, but is that what any conservative lawmaker would want?

Even more concerning, term limits would mean fewer incumbents would be running, which puts more power in the hands of political parties with their fundraising and organizational resources as well as special interest groups that finance candidates. Certainly, populist candidates would still arise from time to time, but more likely the arrangement would give greater influence to those who can take an unknown office-seeker and turn him or her into a household name.

The best that can be said of Mr. Hough's term limit plan is that it would guarantee that no one holds office for more than 12 years, but in most every other respect, the proposal would seem problematic. The world has only gotten more complex over time, and that's reflected in the decisions facing state government. Large corporations don't cast out their CEOs or senior management periodically just for the sake of turnover, they hire or fire based on what those individuals can do for the company.

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