Term limits would be terrible for the Iowa legislature

Annals of the absurd: Iowa’s longest-serving state legislator, who sought a ninth Senate term last year at the age of 80, is now beating the drum for term limits.

What a terrible idea, especially for a state whose governor already takes an expansive view of his own powers.  

Wally Horn has represented part of Cedar Rapids since 1973: ten years in the state House followed by 32 years and counting in the Iowa Senate.

Rod Boshart reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette on Sunday,

At 81, it’s hard to think of Horn as the poster child for anything. But he is for the term-limit movement that wants to restrict future lawmakers to no more than six consecutive terms in the Iowa House and no more than three consecutive terms in the Iowa Senate. […]

As dean of the Iowa Legislature – or as “dean of the dome,” as some call him – Horn has seen a lot of bills and people come and go. He recalls some, such as current Branstad budget director and Iowa Department of Management director David Roederer, when he was a legislative intern, and former Gov. and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who referred to Horn as “coach” in helping the fledgling senator begin to make his mark on Iowa.

During his 43 sessions, Horn has seen the legislative process from all sides – as a member of the minority and of the majority, as a committee chairman and as top leader of the Senate during a four-and-a-half-year stint as majority leader from 1992 to 1996. […]

An Army veteran with a master’s degree, Horn once asked the Legislative Services Agency to calculate how many times he had voted during his legislative career. LSA experts estimated he cast more than 159,000 votes on bills, amendments, minutes, rules, motions, quorum calls and adjournments during his service in 10 legislative committees and about 60 days of legislative action each session.

Iowa’s non-partisan redistricting process creates plenty of competitive state House and Senate races, without introducing term limits to force open seats in every district at least once every six election cycles.

Yet for reasons we can only guess at, Horn has concluded that other long-serving incumbents don’t contribute enough to justify serving more than twelve years in the Iowa House and twelve years in the Senate. One wonders why he insisted on seeking another term in 2014. It’s not as if Democrats needed him on the ballot to hold Senate district 35. Republicans didn’t even nominate a candidate for this seat, where Democrats have a huge voter registration advantage. Surely several bright and capable people would have been happy to compete in a Democratic primary, had Horn retired after such a long legislative career.

The rules Horn advocates would decimate the Iowa Senate Democratic caucus, where a massive experience gap separates the majority members from their Republican counterparts. Raise your hand if you fancy forcing all of the following Senate Democrats to retire when their current terms are up: Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, Bob Dvorsky, Dick Dearden, Matt McCoy, Joe Bolkcom, Amanda Ragan, Bill Dotzler, Herman Quirmbach, Joe Seng, Tom Courtney, Jeff Danielson, and Brian Schoenjahn. I didn’t think so.

Under Horn’s proposal, Senate President Pam Jochum would have been bounced out of the Iowa House before there was an open Senate seat for her to move up to in Dubuque.

If term limits promoted better public policy, one might justify sacrificing a lot of good lawmakers’ careers to that end. But no evidence points to better legislative outcomes in the fifteen states that have adopted some kind of term limits. On the contrary, Alan Greenblatt noted in 2006,

Talk to people who work in any state capitol where term limits exist–members, staff and reporters as well as lobbyists–and you will encounter the nearly universal opinion that term limits are obstacles to careful legislation and effective oversight.

Both academic research and anecdotal reports compiled by Greenblatt indicate that legislative power declines after term limits are introduced. After examining all 50 state legislatures, political scientists John Carey, Richard Niemi, Lynda Powell, and Gary Moncrief found in a much-cited study

that term limits have virtually no effect on the types of people elected to office-whether measured by a range of demographic characteristics or by ideological predisposition-but they do have measurable impact on certain behaviors and priorities reported by legislators in the survey, and on the balance of power among various institutional actors in the arena of state politics. We characterize the biggest impact on behavior and priorities as a “Burkean shift,” whereby term-limited legislators become less beholden to the constituents in their geographical districts and more attentive to other concerns. The reform also increases the power of the executive branch (governors and the bureaucracy) over legislative outcomes and weakens the influence of majority party leaders and committee chairs, albeit for different reasons.

Some research has suggested that term limits increase the influence of lobbyists, although that finding is less widely accepted.

In his piece for Governing.com, Greenblatt discussed problems in several states after term limits forced those with institutional memory out of the statehouse. Not understanding why their predecessors had adopted certain policies, rookie lawmakers cast aside good programs or kept engaging in battles that had been settled in the recent past. But that’s not the worst of it. Greenblatt writes,

[T]he revolving-door system created by term limits has reduced the influence of the legislature itself. In particular, it has lost influence to the executive branch. One southern legislator-turned-lobbyist, who prefers not to be identified, says that he sometimes bypasses his state’s legislature altogether, taking his clients’ business directly to agency officials–the people who actually know how to operate the machinery of government. “There are some legislators who know as much as agency people do, but they’re few and far between and they’ll be gone very quickly,” he says. “Agency heads are the true winners. They can outwait and outlast anyone and everyone on the playing field and they have consolidated their power.” […]

Still, almost everyone involved in the legislative process sees governors as big winners under term limits. In addition to their constitutional authority to sign and veto bills, governors in term- limited states control many top-level state jobs that legislators facing short stints will soon want. Whether it is a question of job ambitions, a shortage of information or sheer inexperience, the reality seems to be that legislators do a far less effective job of competing with governors for power once term limits take effect.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, that state’s term-limited legislators make just half as many changes to the governor’s budget as they did in the old days, representing many billions of dollars in legislative discretion that is no longer exercised. The NCSL/CSG [National Conference of State Legislatures/Council of State Governments] study found similar budgetary effects in other term-limited states, including Colorado and Maine. “The crumbling of legislative power is clear across states,” says Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, and author of a book on term limits. “There’s no more clear finding in the research than a shift in power where the legislature is becoming a less than equal branch of government.”

Governor Terry Branstad has already flouted legislative oversight too many times, once landing on the wrong side of a unanimous Iowa Supreme Court ruling and on another occasion drawing sharp criticism from a Polk County District Court judge for his administration’s actions. Not satisfied with his power to make hundreds of executive branch appointments, Branstad was hell-bent on replacing an agency head whom the Iowa Senate had unanimously confirmed to a fixed term. Now Branstad wants to close two mental health facilities and privatize Medicaid services without legislative input.

The last thing Iowa needs is to consolidate more power in the governor’s hands.

Horn should give up his mission to set “rules for thee but not for me.”

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S.- Whether the Iowa Supreme Court would uphold a term limits statute is unclear. High courts in four states have struck down term limits on lawmakers for various reasons.  

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