The theory behind term limits goes like this: After eight years in office, Florida lawmakers are out of touch with their constituents. By then, they're corrupted career politicians, enslaved to a system that favors special interests and screws the little guy. Getting rid of old, washed-up incumbents prevents abuses of power and encourages a more competitive political atmosphere.
There's only one problem with that theory: It's not true. If anything, since Florida adopted term limits, its state House and Senate races have become demonstrably less competitive, according to a recent study by a University of Central Florida political scientist. Moreover, there are slightly fewer women and more lawyers now than there were in 2000, when Florida's term limits amendment first took effect. So there goes the argument that term limits foster diversity.
In 2004, no Florida legislator lost a re-election campaign. Seventy percent of incumbents weren't even challenged. You could argue that the fault lies with gerrymandered legislative districts drawn to protect incumbency, and you'd be right. But Florida's races are far less competitive today than in 1992, when voters approved a constitutional amendment enacting eight-year term limits for its legislators with 77 percent of the vote, a landslide by any measure.
Term limits became a national issue in the 1980s with the rise of movement Republicanism. Although courts declared term limits unconstitutional for congressional seats, the GOP couldn't rustle up enough support to amend the U.S. Constitution in 1995. Ten years later, 19 states had established laws that limited their state legislators' tenures, including Florida in 1992. After eight more years, term limits had booted 55 state representatives and 11 state senators.
Critics say the problem is that when veteran lawmakers are ditched, their institutional knowledge is lost they're replaced by freshman lawmakers who don't know the system and find themselves at the will of lobbyists. Voters can opt for term limits any time they want to. They're called elections.
Our GOP-controlled state House is now having second thoughts. In November, Florida will become the third state along with Arkansas and Montana to ask voters to relax term limits from eight to 12 years. Since the subject is being pondered, we called Scot Schraufnagel, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida, who just finished a study of the effects term limits have had on the state's Legislature.
Orlando Weekly: The theory behind term limits is that if you limit the number of years legislators can serve, you'll get better government. Has history proven that right?
Scot Schraufnagel: The answer to that question is that it's not clear. [Enough] time hasn't passed yet to know with perfect certainty whether the Legislature is more effective or more efficient than it used to be. Research in California and other states suggests that it's not. … But in terms of effectiveness, it appears as though there's no positive development there.
OW: Are advocates right that term limits bring us closer to participatory democracy, or are opponents right to think that if voters want to get rid of incumbents, they should use elections?
Schraufnagel: Both people are wrong in that instance.
Opponents that say you could just use elections as a way to get rid of people that's not a very realistic claim, because incumbents have just massive advantages in terms of campaign contributions. It's just not the case that elections can provide that accountability mechanism. On the other hand, term limit supporters are wrong if they assume that by simply getting rid of the incumbents you will get a more representative democracy. Because if you replace those incumbents with people who are just like those incumbents in terms of their backgrounds and their social status and so forth, it doesn't change anything. It's not a more citizen [-representative] legislature. Replacing incumbents seems like it might give you a more representative legislature, but we know now in Florida that that's not the case; that's not what happened.
OW: So what role does democracy play in this situation?
Schraufnagel: Participatory democracy is important because it's the only sort of accountability mechanism we have. Term limits, from my research, are not the answer to helping [bring] more quality, participatory democracy. It's not the case that these elections produce more electoral competition. It is not the case that they produce a more representative Legislature. In fact, if anything, electoral competition has gone the other way. Not because of term limits. Term limits don't cause that.
The issue has to be redistricting. Earlier research that I published in Florida Political Chronicle last spring showed that district extremism, or gerrymandering, has created safe districts. It's the case in Florida that less than 10 percent of people are given the opportunity to vote in a competitive election for a state House or Senate seat. These districts are so packed with one member of one party or the other that they are not competitive, to the point where 67 percent of the races go uncontested by a [viable] candidate. And even when we have competition, the margins are often lopsided. Right around 10 percent or less of the elections in Florida are competitive at the state legislative level. This should be a state with lots of electoral competition. If you look at the presidential elections in 2000 and 2004, they were close elections. But we don't have any competition for state legislative seats.
It used to be that the Democrats were guilty of this, because it was all uncontested Democratic races and so forth. Still, there are a lot of uncontested Democratic seats in Florida, but when Republicans were in charge of redistricting last time, they conceded about 30 seats in the Florida House. Thirty seats in the Florida House have big, big majorities of Democrats, like 70 percent to 80 percent Democrats. Those are going to be Democratic seats. It doesn't matter if you replace the incumbents or get the incumbents ousted by term limits. [If] it's an 80 percent Democratic district, guess what: You're going to elect another Democrat. There's no competition. And term limits doesn't change that.
OW: So you think the makeup of the current Legislature is an argument for redoing the way we draw district lines? This November voters will have a chance to approve an amendment that does just that.
Schraufnagel: It's an argument for a different way of redrawing the district line. Right now we have the fox in the henhouse. Unfortunately, some states have experimented with judicial line-drawing and that hasn't fared much better. Research found that when the judges draw the line, they draw the line to favor their party. There is some evidence that there are different ways to draw the line that would make more sense and help create competition.
Term limits don't address the problem. It was a nice idea, I guess. It theoretically could have done it, but it didn't; we know that now.
OW: Have term limits accomplished what supporters said they would?
Schraufnagel: We don't know for sure that legislatures are less efficient or more efficient, and we don't know if interest groups are more or less powerful, because I can't tell you emphatically that term limits have created a less efficient [Florida] Legislature. I also can't tell you that they've created a more efficient Legislature. … We know that term limits don't make it more competitive, that term limits do not make it more representative.
OW: Opponents argue that with experience comes more skill. Thus, arbitrarily getting rid of seasoned lawmakers denies the Legislature valuable institutional knowledge. Do you think they're right?
Schraufnagel: There, the research is incomplete. We don't know. It would appear as though there is some truth to that claim. In some preliminary research I've done, it looks as though interest groups have gotten more powerful. Survey responses of legislative staffers in Illinois and Florida suggest that interest groups have become more powerful under term limits. It may be the result of the fact that the experienced legislators that can serve as more of a buffer against interest groups had to step aside. But there's nothing conclusive there that I know of.
OW: Since term limits were adopted in Florida in 2000, supporters hoped to increase not only competition in races, but diversity as well. As your study indicates, that hasn't happened. Why?
Schraufnagel: There are two things there. What happened is … legislators saw term limits coming, and they knew there were going to be people ousted. So Democrats and Republicans alike, they knew which members they were going to lose, they knew the district makeup, they knew whether these districts were safe districts for their party or not. What they did was, when they knew a term-limited seat was going to open, they went out of their way to recruit a quality challenger, and then pumped extra money into the campaign to create what economists call "barriers to entry" to prevent anybody from getting any idea of trying to compete for a seat.
OW: How, if at all, have term limits affected diversity in the Legislature?
Schraufnagel: Well, one of the things the proponents talked about was occupational diversity. So what I've done is divide everyone up into three groups … lawyers, businesspeople and an "other" category. And so then we look at the three election cycles prior to term limits and the three election cycles after term limits. What we find is that there's no statistically significant difference or change. … And just in sheer numbers, the number of lawyers actually went up by a couple. There has been some movement, but again, in sheer numbers, the number of African-Americans has increased but by two or three, and the number of Hispanics has increased in the House but not in the Senate. Those numbers are not significant changes. What that means is that it's as likely the result of chance as it is anything systematic. … What I explain in the paper is that the increase in minority [lawmakers] is probably as much the result of redistricting as it is anything to do with term limits.
OW: What do you think of the proposed constitutional amendment to bump term limits up from eight years to 12 years?
Schraufnagel: You know, I wish I could say that's a good idea or a bad idea. But the results my research suggests are that it's a nothing idea. It's not good or bad. It doesn't make a difference. On some level it's very obvious to me that this is a political maneuver … it's Republicans that wanted term limits when the Democrats were in control of the state Legislature. And now that the Republicans are in control of the state Legislature, guess what? They don't like term limits any more. Now they want to extend the term limits. So it's sort of a political maneuver.
But in terms of saying this is going to hurt government or this is going to help government, all the empirical evidence suggests that it's not going to make a difference.