Twenty years ago this fall, Missouri voters overwhelmingly approved term limits for members of the state legislature.
At the time, reformers complained that some lawmakers were becoming career politicians, prone to corruption and out of touch with constituents.
But now critics of term limits are pointing to what they contend are the unintended consequences of that vote: political gridlock, embarrassing legislative mistakes, and lawmakers turning into highly paid lobbyists to influence their wet-behind-the-ears colleagues.
“The legislature has become unable to do the job we need it to do,” said David Valentine, a senior research analyst in the Institute of Public Policy at the University of Missouri.
Valentine, who directed the research division in the Missouri Senate for two decades, said the limits of eight years in each house deserve much of the blame for legislative stalemates and other problems that have gripped the General Assembly in recent years, including the session that just ended.
He believes the governing body has lost much of its institutional knowledge, and what’s left is in the hands of legislative staff and lobbyists.
“We don’t understand how truly complex government is,” explained Valentine, who issued a study on term limits last year. “It takes a long time to learn. Missouri has a $24 billion budget, and yet our legislators have the same experience as they did in the 1920s.”
The lack of experience plays out in numerous ways. One of the most significant is high-profile mistakes, such as in 2009 when lawmakers inadvertently banned plastic containers, such as Tupperware, on Missouri’s waterways. The intent was actually to ban Styrofoam.
But perhaps just as important, Valentine contended, is that lawmakers no longer have the incentive to compromise.
“In an earlier era, legislators were more inclined to compromise because they had served with many of these people on a daily basis for years,” he noted. “When you have that kind of long-term relationship, you really don’t do yourself any favors by kicking people in the teeth repeatedly.”
Philip Blumel, president of the advocacy group U.S. Term Limits, doesn’t doubt that the General Assembly is more dysfunctional today than in previous years. But he argued that the culprit is not term limits.
“The reason why it’s been more dysfunctional lately, not just in Missouri but everywhere, is that there are economic problems in the country that make decisions far more difficult,” Blumel said. “Things are easy in boom times; they’re tougher in tough times.”
No one can deny, however, that institutional knowledge and experience have suffered thanks to term limits, said Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, a St. Charles Republican running this fall for his final term. Term limits also can cause tension between members as they jockey for position and try to have an impact.
“You can’t wait for tomorrow if you want to position yourself for a committee chairmanship, a leadership role or even another office. You’re not going to be here tomorrow,” Dempsey said. “So sometimes you have decisions that end up being based on politics more than policy.”
Divisions between House and Senate Republicans caused a seven-week special legislative session last fall to end without any progress on its key issue — a massive economic development bill.
In fact, only two pieces of legislation were ultimately successful: One that fixed a problem with a bill approved earlier in the year, and another that was eventually thrown out by the courts because of procedural problems over how it was passed.
More recently, a group of nine Republican senators temporarily blocked passage of the state’s budget over concerns that it was not truly balanced and relied too heavily on one-time revenue. The debate over that budget turned especially personal, with term-limited Republican Sen. Jason Crowell repeatedly slamming GOP leadership, specifically Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer, who is running for his final term in the Senate this fall.
Dempsey, who took his fair share of barbs from Crowell during the budget debate, said term limits can be a factor in how relationships with colleagues are formed. However, he contends it had little to do with recent disagreements. Personality differences, coupled with redistricting, played a far bigger role, he said.
Rep. Tim Jones, a Eureka Republican who is expected to become House Speaker next year, said contrary to what critics of term limits believe, they could actually improve relations between the legislative chambers in the coming years.
“Many of those personalities will not be here next term,” Jones said on the final day of the legislative session. “The ones who will be here are the ones I have the best relationships with.”
Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican who has been a vocal supporter of legislative term limits, also believes that critics lay too much blame on term limits for any perceived problems.
“Like any reform that is broad in its scope, there are good results and bad results,” Kinder said. “We hate to see some of our finest lawmakers depart, but on balance I think it’s had an incredibly positive impact on our state.”
Many people who would have never gotten the opportunity before have been able to serve in the legislature, something that brings new ideas and new energy to the process, Kinder added.
Next year, term limits will have a dramatic impact on leadership in both the House and Senate. House Speaker Steve Tilley, Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, and Senate Minority Leader Victor Callahan of Independence are all being forced out by term limits.
House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, a Kansas City Democrat, joined the group of former legislative leaders when he decided against running for a final term to instead take a job with Burns & McDonnell as the Kansas City engineering firm’s first director of governmental affairs.
George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University, said more and more lawmakers are seeing the legislature as a stepping stone to something more lucrative. They either leave early to run for another office, he said, or use their experience to find a job in the private sector.
“There is no long-term job security, so why should people finish out their terms when another opportunity comes along?” Connor said. “The only permanent folks in Jefferson City are staff and lobbyists, so I think there is an issue of power moving to unelected people because of term limits. There is now a greater reliance on the expertise of unelected people, like staffers and lobbyists.”
While legislators come and go, “the bureaucrats are there. The lobbyists are there. The political consultants are there. The donors are there,” Dempsey agreed. “The legislators are the ones who are passing through.”
Bills that sought to lengthen term limits have passed both the House and Senate, just not in the same year. And this year, opponents such as Sen. Scott Rupp vowed to filibuster any change to the current law.
“I do not take the threat of filibustering legislation lightly, but when it comes to opposing changing the Constitution in a way that is overwhelmingly opposed by the people in order to extend politicians’ terms in office, I will exercise this prerogative if need be,” said Rupp, a Wentzville Republican who is running for secretary of state.
Even though he believes term limits have had a negative impact on state government, Valentine said he would never “talk about pre-term limits as ‘the good old days’ because it certainly wasn’t always so good. There were still problems.”
Ultimately, even if term limits do contribute to gridlock, some would contend that’s also a good thing, Connor noted.
“What did the Missouri Legislature accomplish this last session? Not very much,” he said. “And the good people of Missouri may be perfectly happy with that. They’ve gotten what they’ve asked for. It is a less active central government.”
One of the biggest impacts of term limits for Dempsey, he said, was just getting to be a legislator in the first place.
“Term limits in some ways were the reason I got to serve in the state legislature, and ultimately it will hasten the end of my career,” he said. “And that’s not such a bad thing.”