Musings about the efficacy of terms limits brought such thinking to the surface. My Baton Rouge Advocate colleague Mark Ballard did a story on that topic on the angle that term limits may have had something to do with the heightened level of conflict within the Legislature over the past few months. In short, according to the piece imposition of limits “sapped legislators of historical knowledge, hardened political positions, and undermined the relationships that are essential ingredients to actually operating the machinery of government, some lawmakers, lobbyists and political operatives say.”
Those taking that position include Sen. Pres. John Alario, state Sen. Francis Thompson (the two together have served as legislators for nearly a century), and longtime political operative Roy Fletcher. Their quotes revealed a pining for more compromise that they thought lacking these days, particularly in dealing with this fiscal year’s budget that ended in a compromised position – two billion dollars in taxes raised, but with half a million dollars in reductions from previous baseline spending (although the addition of new programs, most prominently Medicaid expansion, produced a budget almost $2 billion higher).
Paraphrased, Alario said with those legislators having come in under term limits philosophical politics have replaced the art of the possible. Thompson said “It takes awhile to learn to work with people and to understand the needs of [different areas] and to work out ways that can put together some of your needs with some of my needs.” Fletcher noted that prior to term limits people in the Legislature were there because they saw the House and the Senate as their avenue to access power and public service, so “If it was important to them, then they worked toward a resolution. You don’t have that anymore,” and under more partisan control in the Legislature, “They lose if they cut a deal …. So, where’s the return on making something work?”
Alert readers will note the undercurrent behind these kinds of statements: that government works when it does things; therefore, the more it does, the better it works. But what if something is possible, yet not desirable to the majority? What if, when rank ordering “needs,” the majority wants limits on what government should do that means some of the minorities’ don’t get met? And what if the desire for public service and power was redefined away from growing government by cutting deals to give more to spend on doing things instead to keeping government confined from taking more of what people earn and interfering with their lives?
This assigning of preeminent value to “making something work” betrays a bias towards activist government, blindly assuming that government that governs the most governs the best. Hence, anything that impedes the ability of government to do something they assign negative implications – entirely consistent with the state’s populist political culture that sees government primarily as a redistributor of power and resources that gives stuff to majorities who presume (typically incorrectly) that somebody else pays for it, rather than as a necessary intrusion to do only those things that self-responsible citizens without ordinary effort can do for themselves.
Ironically, this runs counter to the entire philosophy behind the Constitution. Because the awesome power needed by government to accomplish only what citizens could not also risked perversion into tyrannical behavior, by design government action faced many vetoes in its exercise, through separation of power and checks and balances. Its framers deliberately inserted a bias against its acting, in setting up its institutions and the powers these have.
So what the figures quoted see as lamentable – majorities they feel mainly a product of term limits disallowing government to do more things through taking more of the citizens’ resources – rails against the fundamental nature of the system. The system was built to prevent action when too many saw it as the inferior policy choice. And if there’s greater conflict necessary to stop it from doing more things, so be it. The idea that compromise to expand government in and of itself is salutary demonstrates lack of understanding about the origins of American government.
Of course, laying it all at the feet of term limits does not even make sense in Louisiana’s context. Alario and Thompson have hung around so long because of a loophole that largely moots any impact the term limits have – the three-term limit applies only to the legislative office held and is not a lifetime limit across both chambers. Both the House and Senate have a member who previously served whose lifetime totals will exceed three terms, and in the Senate over half its members, because of prior House service, will do the same.
Government does not cease working well simply because it does less as a result of conflict. Rather, that means it works exactly as intended.