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Term limits for state legislators:
Reform of '90s counters previous reform

Suddenly term limits are the miracle cure for the ills of representative government. Polls show that 70 percent of the American public favors limits. Voters in California, Colorado and Oklahoma have passed term limitations via the initiative and referendum process. Forty-five other states, including Illinois, are considering some form of limits for state legislators or congressmen.

Two factors account for the emergence of term limits as the '90s reform of choice. There is a general sense of frustration with the performance of legislative institutions, especially the U.S. Congress. The inability of Congress and the president to deal with vexing national problems such as the economy and the budget deficit has (somewhat unfairly) tarred state legislatures with the same brush. Secondly, the rate of reelection of incumbents to Congress and many state legislatures is so high that it seems impossible to achieve change by "kicking the rascals out" in regularly scheduled elections.

A look at the membership of the General Assembly over time suggests that there already is sufficient turnover to allow for an adequate mix of old and new blood

The disease that term limits is supposed to cure is hardening of the legislative arteries. The remedy is a forced transfusion of fresh blood into the body politic and a return to the ideal of a citizen legislature. The proponents of term limits envision a host of favorable consequences flowing from the change. In general, they argue that professional politicians will be replaced by citizen legislators less concerned with reelection and more able to focus on the problems of governing. They say that term limits will reduce the reliance of legislators on the special interests that finance their election campaigns and will make it easier for nonincumbents to get elected.

Ironically, not long ago, too much legislative turnover was considered a problem. Students of state legislatures argued that a lack of experience among lawmakers weakened their ability to make sound policy choices and prevented the legislature from playing an equal role with the governor. These legislative reformers advocated annual sessions, increases in legislative staff and higher pay. In Illinois that case was made by the Commission on the Organization of the General Assembly, commonly called the COOGA Commission (see Illinois Commission on the Organization of the General Assembly, Improving the State Legislature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1967).

Since the 1960s, many state legislatures have become more professionalized. Professionalization usually means two related changes: the provision of full-time legislative staff and making the job of state legislator more attractive by increasing the pay and improving the working conditions. As a consequence, total turnover in state legislatures has declined.

Illinois is no exception to these trends. Here as in many other states, the reformers carried the day. In fact, Illinois has one of the half-dozen most professionalized state legislatures in the nation. Over half of the members consider being a state legislator a full-time job, and turnover, already lower than in many states, has declined further.

The very success of the legislative reform movement ultimately ignited the term-limits movement. Term-limits supporters seek a return to the days when serving as a state legislator was not a career, but a civic duty. However, the three states that have recently adopted versions of term limits differ in the degree of legislative professionalism. California is, of course, the very prototype of the modern, professionalized state legislature so decried by the limits advocates, while Oklahoma and Colorado are still largely citizen legislatures.

With its highly professionalized state legislature, its many full-time legislators and a relatively low session-to-session turnover, Illinois is a prime target for the term-limits movement. Moreover, Illinois has a limited initiative provision in its Constitution. Article 14, Section 3 of the 1970 Constitution provides for a constitutional initiative restricted to "structural and procedural subjects" of the legislative article. It is this constitutional initiative which was employed to amend the Constitution via the so-called Cutback Amendment, which reduced the Illinois House to 118 members from 177 and eliminated cumulative voting for House members.

12/April 1992/Illinois Issues

There is disagreement over the question of whether the Illinois Supreme Court would find that a term-limit proposal fulfilled the constitutional requirement of changing both structure and procedures of the legislature. The limited initiative provision in Illinois does provide an opening, however, for those who wish to enact term limits for Illinois lawmakers. The alternative for amending the Illinois Constitution relies on the lawmakers themselves putting the question on the ballot.

Currently, there is a petition drive underway by the Illinois Forum proposing a constitutional amendment which provides that: "No person shall be eligible to serve as a member or be a candidate by either election or appointment to the General Assembly for more than 10 consecutive years or for terms or parts of terms which taken as a whole would exceed 10 consecutive years." The forum is headed by conservatives Robert S. Redfern of Fairfield and Daniel B. Crane, a former Republican member of Congress, from Danville.

The petition requires 260,592 signatures by May 3 to get on the November ballot, and Redfern is confident that the Forum will achieve that goal. Even so, it would still in all likelihood have to pass muster with the Illinois Supreme Court and, if it passed judicial scrutiny, would have to receive the required majority vote in this November's general election to become effective following the 1994 elections.

Rep. Margaret Parcells (R-57, Northfield) also has a proposed a constitutional amendment (House Joint Resolution 20) in the General Assembly to limit members to five elections in the House and three in the Senate. This proposal will probably not go anywhere unless it appears likely that the forum measure will get on the ballot. Then Parcells' resolution might be brought forward as a more acceptable alternative to legislators and legislative leadership because it would allow 20-year legislative careers.

© 1992 Springfield State-Journal Register

© 1992 Springfield State-Journal Register

But the diagnosis of the advocates of term limits may be faulty and the cure worse than the supposed disease. A look at the membership of the Illinois General Assembly over time suggests that there already is sufficient turnover to allow for an adequate mix of old and new blood. There is also a real danger that the imposition of term limits would restrict the effectiveness of the legislative branch vis-a-vis the other players in the political system. If the advocates of term limits are serious, there are other more direct means to reach their objectives.

In the 1980s the reelection of incumbent candidates to the Illinois General Assembly averaged 93 percent in the House and 95 percent in the Senate. The total turnover in membership, due to the high incumbent reelection rates and low levels of voluntary retirement, dipped to 2 percent in the Senate and 8 percent in the House in 1988. Term limits advocates contend that the high reelection rate of incumbents and the low turnover in total membership have created a stagnant legislature.

It seems obvious that a high rate of incumbent reelection guarantees that legislative bodies will be frozen in membership, but reelection and turnover rates can be deceiving with respect to cumulative change in an institution. A series of elections at even a 90-95 percent reelection rate for incumbents will yield some turnover. Moreover, looking only at the reelection rates of incumbents does not take into account voluntary retirements and death as a source of turnover.

Between 1979 and 1989, prior to enacting term limits, California had a 53 percent total turnover in the state Senate and a 70 percent total turnover in the Assembly. Those turnover rates do not describe an ossified institution. The turnover rates in the two other states that have adopted term limits are even higher for the 10-year period. Again, prior to enactment of term limits, the total turnover in the Colorado Senate was 80 percent and in the Colorado House, 89 percent. In Oklahoma, the comparable figures during the same period are 81 percent and 85 percent. With such high turnover rates, why bother limiting terms? The answer, at least for Californians, is that the real target of term limiters may have been the powerful legislative leaders with many years of tenure.

In all 50 state legislatures, from 1979 to 1989, turnover was 72 percent in upper chambers and 75 percent in lower ones. If a mix of experienced and new members in a legislature is desirable, then the 10-year picture is one of change, not stagnation.

What about Illinois? The 1980s were a time of exceptionally low session-to-session turnover for the Illinois House. Contrary to the impression one might get from a single election, however, there is a lot of turnover in the General Assembly over 10 years. Of the 118 representatives taking office in 1983 (following the 1981 reapportionment, the Cutback Amendment and the 1982 elections), only 59 (50 percent) remained in office in 1991. If a 10-year term limit had been in effect in 1982, these 59 suvivors would then be barred from seeking reelection in 1992, having served their allotted five terms (1983-84, 1985-86, 1987-88, 1989-90, 1991-92). The picture in the state Senate was a little less encouraging for those who seek new blood: Of the 59 senators in office in 1983, 38 (65 percent) remained in 1991. Perhaps a 50 percent turnover in the House and a 35 percent turnover in the Senate after four elections is not enough to "flush out" the legislative system.

But what happens in the fifth election when effects of redistricting bear down on incumbents? The consequences of this once-every-10-years exercise are multiple, creating conditions which limit terms "naturally" without the need of constitutional revision.

April 1992/Illinois Issues/13

Effect of term limits on Illinois House, 1994-2004

(assuming members elected in 1994 are limited to 10 years)
(assuming incumbent reelection rate 90 percent)

Year of election Year new term begins Years of experience as member
0 2 4 6 8
1994 1995 118

1996 1997 12 106

1998 1999 12 11 95

2000 2001 11 11 10 86

2002 2003 14 9 9 9 77*
2004 2005 82 12 8 8 8
*Ineligible for future service.

Faced with new configurations of districts, some members choose to retire, some are pitted against other incumbents, and some take advantage of the reshuffling of the deck to seek higher office.

The results of redistricting are fruit-basket upsets for the legislature. The 1992 Illinois House elections are a good example. Eleven incumbent members did not file petitions for reelection (nor for state senator); 12 were thrown into races with other incumbents, and 16 filed for state senator. Of the 118 House members from 1983, a maximum of 43 will remain in 1993; that number may be even lower if some of those incumbents lose in the primary or the general election. At a minimum, there will be 75 new members, a 64 percent turnover in total House membership over the 10-year period, 1983-1993.

The picture in the Illinois Senate is similar. For the 1992 elections 16 senators did not file petitions for reelection; four are facing other incumbents. Sen. Jack Schaffer (R-32, Cary) is running for Congress. Sen. Richard Newhouse (D-13, Chicago) retired during the 1991 session. Of the 59 Senate members from 1983, a maximum of 24 will remain after the 1992 elections for a total turnover rate of 60 percent during the 10-year period.

Because there is no recent experience with term limits in the United States, advocates and opponents have to rely primarily on assertions about what the consequences would be. In the 19th century, rotation agreements among candidates provided "voluntary" term limits for members of Congress and for some state legislatures. These agreements specified that elected officials would serve only one or two terms and then the office would rotate to another individual. Abraham Lincoln, for example, served one term in the U.S. Congress under such an agreement. And in the first half of the 20th century, the rate of state legislative turnover from election to election was extremely high. In the 1930s, in every state legislative session, one of every two members was a freshman. Since then, state legislative turnover has declined into the 25 percent range (see Richard G. Niemi and Laura R. Winski, "Membership Turnover in U.S. State Legislatures," Legislative Studies Quarterly 12, 1987: 118), largely because of the high reelection rate of incumbents.

What are the likely consequences of term limits for legislative experience and continuity? Assume a 10-year limit begins for all members in 1995 following the 1994 election of members of the Illinois House. Also assume an incumbent reelection rate of 90 percent in the subsequent elections. Ignore, however, all other causes of leaving the General Assembly. By this projection (see table), 118 House members will be beginning their "first" term in 1995. At the end of 10 years, 77 of the 118 would remain. Those 77 would then be forced into retirement, so that in 2004 there would be 82 brand-new House members (70 percent). The effect of term limits would clearly be diminishing numbers of experienced House members. If the actual rate of incumbent reelection is lower than 90 percent, as advocates of term limits suggest it would be, then the degree of inexperience in the House in any given session will be correspondingly higher.

Who benefits from such an "experience gap"? Clearly it would be those who have more experience in the system: the legislative staff, the interest groups, the governor and the bureaucracy none of whom would be subject to arbitrary term limits nor accountable to the electorate except the governor. The 70 percent turnover in the House forced by the 10-year term limit would dwarf the average figure of 50 percent in a single session in the "golden age" of the citizen legislature, the 1930s, which in turn set off the reform movement to professionalize the legislature.

Would term limits return the citizen to the legislature? It's doubtful. The career of the average state legislator today is about 10 years. High salaries, better working conditions, a full-time legislature and the chance for advancement to higher office attract professional politicians to the General Assembly. In a legislature with term limits professional politicians would continue to predominate, but they would be even more fixated on higher office because of their inability to plan a long career in the General Assembly. The only sure way to get back to a citizen legislature is to mandate a return to biennial sessions and reduce the incentives for full-time politicians by cutting legislative pay, benefits and resources. In other words, turn back the clock on history. Unfortunately, that would give the game away to the governor, the bureaucracy and the interest groups.

The real target of term limits may be the entrenched leadership in the General Assembly. The four legislative leaders, House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-30, Chicago), House Minority Leader Lee A. Daniels (R-46, Elmhurst), Senate President Philip J. Rock (D-8, Oak Park) and Senate Minority Leader James "Pate" Philip (R-23, Wood Dale), have served an average of over 20 years in the General Assembly and were its leaders throughout the 1980s. If this is a problem and it may not be then a more appropriate remedy might be to adopt mandatory rotation in leadership positions, such as practiced in Florida. Rotation would ensure a change in leadership without stripping the General Assembly of its experienced members.

State legislatures need a blend of old and new blood: new blood for energy and innovation, old for continuity and "institutional memory." Evidence suggests the present system provides such a mix.

David H. Everson holds a joint appointment in political studies and the Illinois Legislative Studies Center at Sangamon State University. He is editor of Comparative State Politics, a periodical featuring recent political developments in the states. Everson is also a nationally known writer of mysteries featuring Springfield private investigator and political insider Robert Miles.

14/April 1992/Illinois Issues

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