Leading into the coming elections, someone is bound to
trot out that tired notion of term limits for legislators, as
though this would solve a lot of problems.
Term limits, it has been said, would drain the swamp; they
would cap the ability of politicians to accumulate too much
seniority, too much power; they would provide footing for
the idea that lawmakers are part-time public servants, not
full-time office holders; they would ensure turnover, the
possibility of fresh talent for a stale process.
But turnover can be frequent in Topeka. Wisdom, the kind
of seasoned experience that once marked more distinguished
legislators, has faded rapidly in recent years.
The issues today involve complex matters, starting with
the matted jungle growth in a $16 billion budget, a $6 billion
operating fund, and resolving that billion-dollar debt
accumulated in recent legislative years. And at the center
of every state agency are tenured public servants, experts in
government services, from the complications of trust funds
and health care to the thickets of tax law, bond formulas and
Even seasoned legislators seek information, advice and
guidance from these non-elected officials. Some experienced
staffers have, over the years, become quite influential.
After all, it is their research and their advice on which lawmakers
may base decisions that affect law and policy.
In recent years, the Brownback-Colyer administration
and their friends forced the departure of many such servants
who called them on their misdeeds and their ignorance.
The vacuum was thus inviting for the shrewder lobbyists,
weathered veterans of the cash and carry crowd. Partisan
Washington think tanks and seasoned lobbyists, in business
to spread influence and money, often write legislation, or
testify before committees, or offer their “advice”.
Put another way, the Statehouse may be the public’s
building but it is the lobbyists’ home.
Term limits applied to one faction of the Capitol risk an
imbalance of power, rather than a leavening of power. Leave
term limits on a shelf for now. Until there are term limits for
bureaucrats and lobbyists, limits on legislators are a bum
idea. The public’s voice is weak enough as it is.
‒ JOHN MARSHALL