Like vampires, term-limited Louisiana legislators continue to attempt to exist as the undead, revealing perhaps a silver lining to the otherwise-flawed term limit regime enacted into the Constitution some 15 years ago.
When the Louisiana citizenry overwhelmingly voted for term limits for legislators, essentially three or fewer for a position in the House or Senate, this made the state unique, as it was the only one whose legislators proposed it on themselves without the presence of an initiative process that could have allowed citizens to bypass state government. But perhaps the price of that, not realized by many at the time, was their application only to the position held in their specific chambers.
This allowed, when limitation first applied in 2007, to have a number of those limited in the House to try for Senate seats, and a couple of Senate members to go for the House.
While the House therefore barely got affected (only one of the two ex-senators succeeded in that, actually reclaiming the seat he had held before turning to the Senate), a third of the newly-elected 2008-12 Senate was House term limit escapees.
Many observers complained about this incomplete nature, arguing it diluted, if not violated the spirit of, the term limit concept to allow term-limited members of one chamber to continue legislative careers uninterrupted in the other. But as the second round of application now comes in 2011, maybe there’s a saving grace to this arrangement.
It seems that several past or present members of the Legislature, term-limited or who would have been, have risen from their political coffins to challenge incumbents, some of whom succeeded them. To give examples of the different situations, in House District 3 state Rep. Barbara Norton has drawn her predecessor, Ernest Baylor, into the election, offering a rematch of his initial election. In Senate District 39, state Sen. Lydia Jackson finds herself challenged by her predecessor, Greg Tarver, who left voluntarily in 2003 but who would have bumped up against limits in 2007. In Senate District 30, James David Cain, who previously held that spot, has declared against current occupant state Sen. John Smith, who grabbed in after his term limitation in the House. In Senate District 1, incumbent state Sen. A.G. Crowe, term-limited four years ago in the House who won the election against another term-limited representative, faces the same kind of opponent again as term-limited state Rep. Nita Hutter from the 104th House District wants to extend her political life at his expense.
One argument for term limits hypothesized that incumbency created structural advantages for those officeholders, discouraging competition, making it more difficult for challengers to win, thereby reducing incentives for accountability. While the incomplete nature of Louisiana’s allows some transfer of these advantages, if they exist, from a limited holder to an immediate next campaign, it also creates a natural set of challengers trying to move from one chamber to the other. Like warriors involuntarily demobilized from an army, they cannot be isolated and bottled up from society (in this instance, the Legislature) but instead become ronin, refusing to accept political suicide and instead roaming the landscape looking for new masters (constituencies), in the process inflicting damage on the existing order (incumbents).
In a representative democracy, more competition is preferable to less, because of the greater sense of accountability it spurs in officials for the electorate’s wishes. With term-limited legislators eyeing offices in the other chamber allowed under this incomplete system, this ready-made pool of quality challengers encourages those incumbents in the other chamber to strive for that greater accountability. One even could argue this system provides superior accountability for those in their last term as well, as they may opt for a challenge for the other chamber. As such, perhaps this arrangement is not as flawed as when first considered.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 08:35