Missouri Term Limits
Yesterday in the Columbia Daily Tribune, columnist J. Scott Christianson had a few unpleasant things to say about an organization I used to work for:
Any re-examination of our experiment with term limits is bound to draw the attention of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Term Limits organization. Last week, Jeremy Johnson, the U.S. Term Limits director of state government affairs, said in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article that he was “prepared to run TV and radio ads and ‘do whatever it takes’ to keep Missouri’s legislative term limits in place.”
Claiming to be “one of the largest grass-roots movements in American history,” this organization goes from state to state testifying, lobbying and pontificating about the great benefits of term limits. U.S. Term Limits, however, has no interest in leveling the political playing field by supporting public financing of elections, free media time for candidates or any other type of campaign finance reform that would actually reduce the advantages of incumbency. In fact, their main goal seems to be to make sure that races for the General Assembly are based on one criterion: Money. Or, special interest money, to be exact.
You see, U.S. Term Limits is not the grass-roots organization that it makes itself out to be. It is yet another “Astroturf” organization funded almost entirely by billionaire Howie Rich, a real estate tycoon from New York who has been trying to get states to enact his radical ideas for property rights, education spending and state funding for the past 20 years or so.
Now, I’m the new guy here at the Show-Me Institute, but as far as I know we haven’t taken an official position on term limits. I’m convinced term limits are an excellent idea, but your mileage may vary. One thing I can say for sure, though, is that U.S. Term Limits is not an “Astroturf” organization. During the five-plus years I spent as an editor and webmaster for U.S. Term Limits, I had plenty of exposure to the organization’s membership databases and fundraising efforts — and we had huge broad-based grassroots support from throughout the nation. Including Missouri.
Term limits have gotten quite a bit of attention in the Missouri press recently, as pundits throughout the state blame them for an indecorous Legislature, in which lawmakers squabble and strongarm each other rather than compromise in order to get things done. “Go along to get along” should be the rule of the day, I suppose.
But for those of us who heed the adage (oft attributed to Mark Twain) that “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session,” a Legislature beset by gridlock and filled with lawmakers who mistrust each other’s motives is a welcome improvement over the usual politics of glad-handing and backroom deals. I don’t want a Legislature that functions smoothly and with minimal dissent as it screws over taxpayers. Passing new legislation should be a difficult, contentious process, laden with scrutiny and debate. It should also be flexible enough so that if lawmakers, in retrospect, realize they’ve passed something that’s simply a bad idea, they can kill it or change it to make it better. If this is what term limits is bringing Missouri, we should be grateful.
Mr. Christianson claims that term limits “have succeeded in increasing the power of capital city lobbyists.” He gives one anecdotal source for this absurd claim, but no evidence. If they’re more powerful, why do surveys show that, consistently, lobbyists are more anxious to repeal term limits than anybody else? Lobbyists can’t enter into cozy long-term relationships with lawmakers who will be gone in a few years. They become less powerful under term limits, not more. If somebody is overhearing term-limited lawmakers talk about their lobbyist affiliations, it’s likely that they just haven’t learned to keep their nascent attempts at mutual back-scratching hushed up and out of sight, like career politicians have.
It’s telling when Mr. Christianson complains that “U.S. Term Limits, however, has no interest in leveling the political playing field by supporting public financing of elections, free media time for candidates or any other type of campaign finance reform that would actually reduce the advantages of incumbency.” These are all measures that limit free speech and entrench the political establishment against dark-horse candidates or outside criticism. It’s a common rejoinder that “money isn’t speech,” but the freedom to speak is worthless if the law prohibits you from buying a soapbox so people will actually hear your message.
Mr. Christianson also seems to object that the founder of U.S. Term Limits is spending “his New York money to influence how people live in some 14 other states,” as though good ideas about policy are dependent on geographic point of origin. The Show-Me Institute is based in Missouri, and we focus our research on Missouri economics and policy. But national groups have a broader purview, and it’s illogical to be wary of an idea simply because it comes from somebody based outside the state. Although I’m no longer an employee of U.S. Term Limits, I recall a column written by Paul Jacob during the last couple of months I worked there. He wrote:
U.S. Term Limits hears this argument about out-of-state influences quite often. Of course, the critics of term limits would like nothing better than for friends of term limits to pack our bags and go home. They don’t have any good arguments to make, so they talk about this out-of-state thing instead. Only when it’s convenient, though; career politicians love out-of-state influences when it adds to their campaign coffers.
In any case, U.S. Term Limits will not back away. We’re a national organization, with members in every state. And, of course, the nation is made up of 50 states, and term limits are a good idea for each and every one of them.
This is true for any good idea — regardless of the source.