A Minute With...

Christopher Mooney, expert on state politics

9/16/2013  8:00 am

The idea of term limits has become popular in Illinois politics after Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner helped start a petition drive for a constitutional amendment that would limit lawmakers to eight years in the Illinois House and Senate.

Christopher Z. Mooney is the director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. Mooney, the W. Russell Arrington Professor of State Politics in the department of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, has studied comparative U.S. state politics, with a special focus on state legislatures. He spoke with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about the potential pitfalls of term limits in state government.

Do we need state legislative term limits in state government to avoid controversies, such as requests for patronage jobs, which are the hallmarks of entrenched power?

image of professor christopher mooneyMy take on term-limits – or any sort of major institutional reform, really – is that you need to think broadly about its potential impact. It brings to mind the old saying, “Hard cases make bad law.” In other words, you don’t want to make a big change in government to fix an otherwise small problem. You also don’t want to make a big institutional change as a quick reaction to the latest controversy.

Term limits has been on the reform agenda of states for 35 years now. On the surface, people love the idea of it. It fits in with the old American idea of government being simple: The yeoman farmer puts down the plow in the fall, goes to the capitol, makes a few laws and then comes back home. Term limits has a lot of appeal as something that might do something to help root out the culture of corruption in politics. And in Illinois, you have to admit that recent history suggests that we need some help in this regard.

So that’s why term limits gets deployed as a political tool, because it’s so popular. It also can help to distinguish a candidate from his or her competition, if that candidate is an “outsider” candidate running against long-serving officeholders.

But just because a reform is politically popular doesn’t mean it’s ideal – or even workable. There are multiple implications for any state that adopts term limits. And it’s certainly not a silver bullet that’s going to solve the biggest problems that states – including Illinois – face.

So the appeal of term limits is the George Washington aspect of it? The idea that anyone can serve – but not too long – and then gracefully bow out and retire from public service?

Yes. In the U.S., we believe that virtually anyone can serve in public office, and there’s good logic to that. It’s very democratic to think of policymakers and policymaking as being representative of the people. The original colonists were very concerned with standing armies and the tyranny of the nobility – the very things that they rebelled against in the Revolutionary War. The feelings of suspicion of an ongoing political elite remain strong today.

However, the problem is that term limits isn’t a good way to achieve that. Term limits doesn’t give you a citizen state legislature. The thing that really drives whether a state has a citizen legislature or not is how big and complicated the state’s economy is. If you want to have a citizen legislature, live in New Hampshire. Live in Arkansas. Live in West Virginia. Those are states whose legislatures meet just a couple of months out of the year. But even in those states, legislators aren’t perfectly representative of the people. It’s still, largely, lawyers, insurance salespeople, real estate salespeople and others who have flexible schedules and some resources. So these people don’t need to make a living off of their salary as a representative. These states don’t need to have people year-round; there are just not as many complicated problems there.

Illinois is a big state. It’s as big as some significant countries. And even though we don’t have foreign policy to deal with, we do have a wide variety of public problems. So it’s not unreasonable, especially when we compare ourselves to other states our size – Pennsylvania, New York, California – to have a legislature that’s professional and well-staffed, where those who serve are paid more or less a full-time wage.

Texas is really the only example of a state that is roughly comparable to Illinois that has a citizen legislature. The legislature in Texas meets every other year, so the executive branch ends up dominating the state. That’s what would happen if we had a citizen legislature in Illinois; the governor would be a lot stronger.

And that’s probably the clearest implication of term limits that we know from research on the reform: They make the governor stronger. You might want a stronger governorship, but those who fear the power of a strong executive might not.

What effect would term-limits have on partisanship?

Another one of the findings of the term limits research that I was involved in was that short-timers in the legislature don’t get to know the other side very well. They tend to see things through a more purely partisan lens.

For example, freshman lawmakers are usually more partisan at the start of their tenure because they’re just coming off an election. But once they get working in the legislature, they start to hear about the various public problems in a concrete and practical way. And oftentimes, especially at the state level, these aren’t necessarily problems with a partisan dimension; for example, they might have a regional dimension, or a rural-urban dimension. So the longer you’re in the legislature, typically, the more you can see the other side’s perspective. You see this especially in committees, where the more senior members of committees tend to be much more on the same page with their colleagues than those who are new.

So the problem with term limits is that you don’t get any of those senior people. It’s a recipe for gridlock in that it increases the partisan bickering and polarization because you have more of these newer members who don’t have that broader perspective.

You also get less buy-in for the legislature as an institution under term limits. If you’re only there for a little while, you don’t really care if it works or what you leave in your wake. But if you’ve got a stake in it, you want to see it work long-term. There’s less incentive to make the legislature functional if you know that you’re leaving after a certain period of time.

In general, people don’t like legislatures because making law can be messy and complicated. But as a place for the representation of a variety of interests, and a place for citizens to have contact with their lawmakers, it’s an invaluable institution. Legislatures also help to balance the executive branch, which is very important in this state because of our very strong governorship. So the legislature is the way the people’s voice gets heard. It may not always come across that way, but that is its role.


A Minute with… is provided by the News Bureau | Public Affairs as a venue for Illinois faculty experts to comment on current topics in the news. Faculty experts on a wide range of socially important topics are available to news media through the News Bureau, (217) 333-1085.


An index of previous A Minute with… features is here.