No on 45: A quaint theory, mugged by the facts

Russell Sadler

Ballot Measure 45 restores term limits on Oregon legislators -- six years in the House and eight years in the Senate.

In 2002, the Oregon Supreme Court overturned the 1992 term limits approved by voters. The high court ruled the sponsors of that initiative violated a provision of the Oregon constitution that limits initiatives to amending one section of the constitution at a time.

The preamble to Measure 45 says, “Limiting the terms of legislators expands opportunities for public service, reduces the influence of lobbyists and the power of incumbency, and encourages fresh energy and ideas thorough varied public representation...”

Oregon’s decade-long experience with term limits suggests that’s a quaint political theory mugged by a brutal gang of facts.

During the decade term limits were in effect, the Oregon legislature became an artificial, self-induced revolving door of inexperienced, poorly informed lawmakers all struggling with learning the basics of Oregon government at the same time.

Inexperienced legislators became the pawns of the majority leadership which was in turn beholden to the national partisan interests that supplied their campaign cash. The needs of ordinary Oregonians took a backseat to bitter partisanship.

With so many inexperienced lawmakers, lobbyists found they had become the legislature’s institutional memory. Many lobbyists told me they were spending more time just explaining the basics of long-standing issues to green lawmakers than they spent lobbying for their clients’ interests. Ironically, the lobbyists didn’t like their newly acquired role. In the Voters’ Pamphlet, you will see a large number of well-established trade association lobbyists urging you to vote “no” on Measure 45. They want more experienced lawmakers who have enough background to be more independent of the legislative leadership.

In an op-ed piece promoting Measure 45, Libertarian Paul Farago writes, “Regular open-seat elections began to bring forward a greater diversity of qualified candidates, and resulted in opening the House and Senate to women and minorities who had been long excluded from the old-boy network.”

Sorry Paul. It’s the way we never were.

During the decade term limits were in effect, candidates for the Legislature were less qualified, if anything, because fewer of them had any experience in local government like city councils or school boards.

The demographics really didn’t change much with term limits. The number of women and minorities was not significantly different. Nor was the average tenure of legislators significantly longer or shorter. Term limits simply forced a large number of legislators out of office just as they were getting enough background and experience to do their jobs effectively.

Term limits is a sweet solution looking for a problem.

Oregon really doesn’t have a cadre of “career politicians,” largely because legislators are paid part-time salaries for part-time jobs. The legislature turns over when lawmakers decide they cannot continue to serve on the money they make and either return to make a living in the private sector or run for a higher office that pays a living wage.

The voters decide who moves up the political ladder to a rather small number of full-time jobs held by people who could be classed as “career politicians.” The voters rarely choose Libertarians. And that’s what galls Farago and his bankroller, New York real estate developer Howard Rich.

The Libertarian Party is Oregon’s third largest political party. Yet there is just a scattering of Libertarian office holders on city councils, school and community college boards or appointed to planning commissions. There are no Libertarians in the Legislature or in statewide office. Voters don’t elect them when they are on the ballot. No Libertarian candidate has ever won more than 10 percent of the vote for any major office.

That says a lot about the Libertarians’ rigid “I’ve-got-mine-Jack-you-get-yours” ideology and Oregon voters’ reaction to their gospel of selfishness. Libertarians want to create artificial turnover to create artificial vacancies to increase their own election opportunities. That’s all term limits is about.

Self-appointed “citizens activists” like Paul Farago, Bill Sizemore and Don McIntire have been active in Oregon politics nearly two decades now -- a far longer term that they would permit legislators chosen by the voters. They helped turn Oregon’s initiative process into a private, parallel shadow government, bypassing the checks and balances of the legislative process.

Shouldn’t people with that kind of power over our lives be limited in the number of years they can be self-appointed “citizen activists”? No! Wait! That would be an unconstitutional infringement on their rights of free speech and free association, wouldn’t it. Wouldn’t it?

  • DSS (unverified)

    Excellent post, Russell! The Sizemore-McIntire goofballs have weilded far more influence on Oregon politics than many state representatives.

    Anyone who thinks Measure 45 will bring a fresh, new approach to state politics needs to spend some time in Sacramento and judge who has more influence: the brand-new legislators who only recently sold out to get past their primary... or the lobbyists who are the only people who've been in the building for longer than six years.

  • Silence Dogood (unverified)

    It's not all that hard to read the term limits stuff before you write on it. It's all simple and on the web unless you don't want to bother.

    Passed in '92 and phased in over 17 years. The original law got 70% approval. It was only in effect for four years - 2 elections, '98 and '00.

    "The results from those two elections yielded the greatest participation of women - 35% - ever in the Oregon House. Since then, that has steadily dipped to 28%. The glass ceiling of 20% has never been broken in the Senate. The old boy network was starting to break up, and competition was beginning to work to allow our Legislature to become more representative."

    What I like best is that the seniority system was abandoned in the Legislature. They brought seniority right back after getting rid of limits.

    Russell, nobody wants to turn the clock back on women in Oregon legislative politics but that is what's happening.

    So you must be defending strict seniority, where merit loses out to longevity, and mediocrity rises to the top. Nice. You have an accountability and choice problem. Keep looking for a solution.

    And if it is so great for the lobbyists, how come they are spending $1 million against it?

  • (Show?)

    Silence. Don't put words in my mouth. It's not sanitary. I made no comments on seniority.

    I covered the Legislature during the period that women became a force in the Assembly. Vern Katz was a four term Speaker of the House. It had nothing to do with the Old Boy network. It had to do with the primaries and who the voters chose. Before 1990, the Democrats used a modified seniority system that gave a nod to experience with some consideration of new blood.

    While term limits was phased it over time, it had an effect on lawmakers career decisions the moment it was passed. So it is fair and accurate to say we have had term limits for a decade and a half.

    The column explains why so many lobbyists are opposed to it. Term limits and the attendant inexperience makes individual lawmakers easy pawns of their leaders. Lobbyists seek lawmakers who will listen the case they make for their clients, not ape the leadership's ideology or political comittments.

    The Republicans abandoned seniority when the took over after the 1990 elections because the leadership wanted obedience, not experience, in the chairs. Partisan loyalists chaired committees. It had nothing to do with term limits.

    I know. I was there.

  • LT (unverified)

    Silence, the advocates of term limits (which had no organized opposition in 1992, and a friend of mine appeared at one of their press conferences)don't want us to think for ourselves. They don't like the system where we decide who our legislators are. They never talk about Speaker Simmons taking a job as a lobbyist before he'd completed his term as Speaker. But he was an excellent Speaker because term limits had a positive effect on this state?

    The actual text of this measure says this covers "all previous years of service".

    So, novices would once again run the legislature. And those advocating the measure want us to believe that is a good thing.

    A friend and I were talking this afternoon (in a very different context) about advocates with the attitude "leave your life experience at the door because we are here to tell you what to believe". In a free country, voters can vote down all measures if they choose, regardless of what the advocates want them to do.

    To support this measure, we are expected to believe not only that inexperience is a virtue, but that every legislator elected because term limits threw out the incumbent was better than the person they replaced. There are Oregonians who don't believe that.

    And no term limits advocate has ever been able to complete this sentence about one instance of replacing a popular incumbent:

    "Dan Doyle was a better legislator than the term-limited Larry Wells he replaced because.............."

    Now, if you want inexperienced legislators then you should state that affirmative, and let people decide if they agree with you. But unlike 1992, you can't say "try this system" because we already have tried it.

    If there was a measure or a bill which term limited lobbyists and initiative types (meaning those like McIntire would have to find something else to do) that would be something else. But this says "legislators don't need experience, because US Term Limits says so and you should believe them".

    You folks have failed to make that sale.

  • Silence Dogood (unverified)

    Russell, you owe McIntire for extending your career so don't treat him so harshly.

    You are losing points when you say we still have term limits. The political insiders got rid of it before the '02 elections. That is fair and accurate. What other of your claims should be looked at a little more closely?

    You didn't need a column to explain why lobbyists oppose term limits. They always have, because it's easier to get what they want from legislators who they have known for a long time. Besides, you've had every paper in the state claiming (!) that term limits are good for lobbyists. What a hoax.

    Nice try LT. It takes all kinds of experience, especially considering issues in Salem involve the entire state. Why would you want to deny local experience in our legislature, and deny legislative experience in our local offices? Because open-seat elections are bad for democracy?

    George Washington stood down after 2 terms and set the standard for leadership rotation, putting the good of the country ahead of his personal gain. But that's just another quaint theory mugged by facts, right Russell?

    I guess our school books should be revised - if they haven't been already - to inform our youngsters that Washington's error was a result of misunderstanding democracy ... he did not realize the importance of "experience" in office to the People's well-being, and lacked appreciation for the complex inner workings of government.

  • Ed Bickford (unverified)

    From Washington's Farewell Address of September 17, 1796:

    "The acceptance of, and continuance hitherto in, the office to which your suffrages have twice called me, have been a uniform sacrifice of inclination to the opinion of duty, and to a deference for what appeared to be your desire. I constantly hoped, that it would have been much earlier in my power, consistently with motives, which I was not at liberty to disregard, to return to that retirement, from which I had been reluctantly drawn...

    "I shall also carry with me the hope, that my Country will never cease to view them [my errors] with indulgence; and that, after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest."

    George Washington was 64 (in the 18th century!), with 45 years of service to the new country behind him. He felt he was due retirement, and indeed got to enjoy it for only three years. He was NOT submitting to term limits!

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Term limits is the wrong solution to the right problem. The problem is the ability of mediocre and worse officeholders to get reelcted using the big campaign contributions that incumbents are offered.

    The right solution is campaign finance reform, as in Fair Elections Measures 46 & 47. If progressives had not been led astray by their political professionals who are more concerned with the size of their Christmas bonuses than with their constituent's interests, support of Fair Elections could have been an effective antidote to the Measure 45 campaign.

    Democrats do seem talented at throwing away political opportunity, though.

  • Ed Bickford (unverified)

    Boy! I'm fully expecting M 46 & 47 to cure my sciatica, too, seeing it is such a cure-all!

  • (Show?)

    Russell, Unfortunately you lead off with a deception and carry that same deception all the way through your argument. Perhaps that is how ya'll got so screwed up on the M37 challenge.

    You did not live with TL's for a decade. It was actually less than a decade and many lawmakers were never limited.

    So your entire argument about losing all that valuable experience is just plain wishful thinking. You know... kinda like that Judge Mary Merten James' attempt to overturn M37.

  • Alec (unverified)

    Term limits are just another means of legislating apathy. We already have a strong term limit in force. It's called "the vote."

  • Silence Dogood (unverified)

    You get a vote like they had bread in Eastern Europe in the '70s. One choice - the incumbent. And you get no change.

    More people were removed from the Legislature due to criminal convictions (2) than by November voters (1) last term. 98.1% of state legislative incumbents win in general elections. The anti-limits crowd wants to turn Oregon into South Carolina, Arkansas, or Georgia where >70% of incumbents run unopposed in "elections" that are uncontested. Like Oregon judges.

    That's no competition, no choice, no accountability.

  • (Show?)

    Silence, since it sounds like you have the numbers close at hand... how many legislators left office willingly last term? (And, if you're real helpful, where did they go? Higher office?)

  • Silence Dogood (unverified)

    I got this info from the website. For folks interested in the facts, it's pretty easy to get this information. You don't need to be an expert or have vast experience in the inner workings of elections. They've done the research.

    November open-seat trend, post term-limits (98.1% incumbent retention rate):

    '02: 24 open seats (1 incumbent defeated) '04: 18 open seats (1 incumbent defeated) '06: 10 open seats (?)

    The trend is toward fewer and fewer open seats and toward zero incumbent defeats. Think South Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, just like in The Oregonian article on Saturday.

    Measure 45 is for lawmakers who would put their personal political power ahead of the good of the state, who would block anyone else from serving in an office they "own".

    It may be interesting where ex-lawmakers go, but to me, it's more important that new people come in with fresh energy, and that there are real choices in an election. That's why Measure 45 makes sense.

  • Cole (unverified)

    Hmmm... Sounds like a proponent of the big-government, big-taxing, big-spending, almost communist, statist agenda getting scared that things might change, and so he lashes out against fair political practices, and freedom in general.

  • Conservative Democrat (unverified)

    Cole, you use the word "freedom," but at the very heart of Measure 45 is the fact that it restricts my choice on the ballot: It prohibits me from voting for the candidate of my choice.

    Laws don't increase freedom; they chip away at it. Get that in your head if you're going to pretend to be a conservative.

  • Silence Dogood (unverified)

    Conservative Democrat: Actually, the advantages of incumbency are prohibiting your true voter choice. Unless of course your choice is always the incumbent and you don't really care about fair elections. (Then you are probably part of the political food chain and just don't like going hungry, that's understandable.)

    It's pretty obvious that job #1 for politicians is getting re-elected and that means eliminating competition. That means roping voters off into safely partisan districts, getting rid of term limits, etc. etc. The hard work eliminating competition is never done.

  • Lynn Porter (unverified)

    I'm going to vote for term limits. I'm appalled by what the state legislature has done to the Oregon Health Plan over the last few years. If that's the result of experience, I would like to see less of it in Salem.

    I'll also be voting for 46 & 47, to get the money out of politics.

  • PanchoPdx (unverified)

    Russell wrote:

    So it is fair and accurate to say we have had term limits for a decade and a half.


    So why has Peter Courtney been a member of the state legislature since the Carter Administration?

    Don't let that fact catch up with you in a dark alley.

  • Zak J. (unverified)

    The problem with term limits isn't that it brings novices into politics; the problem is that the extreme term limits being offered by this measure will mean we have ONLY novices in politics. Which, Lynn, is what we are still recovering from now as a result of the last round of limits and what explains so much of the inaction we see in Salem (along with Minnis's personal efforts at creating stalemate.)

    The proposed limits on the House will be six years, which means at the start of a legilative session the LEADERSHIP in the House will only have 4 years experience behind them. That's just not enough. These are limits for people handling billions of dollars of our money. I wouldn't hire a CEO who only had 4 years business experience, and that's a lot less important than having a competent legislature. The seniority system actually makes sense if you look at it in this light.

    <h2>I think the main reason we have such high rates of return on incumbants is because most seats are %100 secure for one or the other of the major parties and people are reluctant to take on an incumbant from their own party. Contested primaries are a drain on resources that can be used in the later campaign, so forcing your own party's incumbant to spend those resources defending against you is not something people take lightly. A change in internal party cultures will be needed before this attitude of seeing internal challengers as disloyal changes. I can see how term limits would increase turn-over where seats are safe for R or D, but the side effect of having no experience or institutional memory in Salem seems too high. I voted no.</h2>

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