OBBYIST SHARON GEUEA JONES NEVER EXPECTED TO BECOME A MENTOR TO MISSOURI LAWMAKERS.
But she says that’s exactly what happened after term limits went into effect in the General Assembly.
Jones, a lobbyist for the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, went to work in Jefferson City in 2002, the first year term limits were imposed. A few years later, she recalls, a gradual but profound change began affecting the way she related to lawmakers.
When older, more experienced legislators dominated the legislative agenda, Jones could jump right into the issues she was lobbying for. “You can use shorthand with people who have been there for over 20 years, because the issues don’t really change,” she says. “I could go to Harold Caskey (D-Butler, retired), who had been in the Senate for 25 years when I started lobbying, and just say, ‘This is a peer-review bill.’ He would know exactly what it meant, exactly what it said, and exactly why we had problems with it. There was almost no need for education. In fact, during my first year of lobbying, a bill came up that we weren’t expecting on the Senate floor. We literally sent in a business card with the bill number, a frowny face and a two-word topic. It wasn’t that the person just trusted everything we said; it was that he knew what the information on the card meant.”
Contrast that with Jones’s dealings with a recently elected member from St. Louis County. The lawmaker had just spent 10 hours debating a proposed anti-discrimination measure. When Jones approached her to talk about the bill, she agreed with the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys that the bill should not pass. But she said she needed more information to explain why.
“So we had two of our members spend four hours with her in her district on a Saturday, basically teaching her discrimination law,” Jones says.
Jones’ experience is now the norm, says David Valentine, a political scientist and assistant professor in MU’s Truman School of Public Affairs. Valentine recently published a study examining whether 10 years of term limits in the Missouri legislature have served, as proponents claimed they would, to promote good governance by eliminating the ability of a handful of long-term incumbents to control the legislative and electoral agendas.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Valentine’s findings indicate that entrenched incumbents no longer exercise the power they once held. Unfortunately, he says, there is little evidence that today’s term-limited lawmakers are governing more successfully on account of this. In fact, he says, things may be worse.
Approved by voters in 1992, the state-constitutional amendment imposing term limits restricted legislators to four, 2-year terms of service in the House of Representatives, and two, 4-year-terms in the Senate. Lawmakers are allowed to extend their total electoral tenure to 16 years by successfully running for office in the General Assembly’s other chamber.
To pass Missouri’s term-limit amendment, supporters made the point that forcing out entrenched incumbents would help bring an end to the cozy lawmaker-lobbyist relationships that they believed were unduly influencing public policy decisions.
Philip Blumel, president of U.S. Term Limits, a Fairfax, Va.-based group that advocates imposing term limits across the country, argues that concerns are coming chiefly from people with an ax to grind.
“Term limits have been as successful in Missouri as they have been for other state legislatures,” Blumel says. “The complaints you are hearing are from self-interested politicians and special interests. I also live in a term-limited state [Florida], where term limits have proven successful, particularly in the budgeting process.”
Valentine disagrees. On issues related to the budget and myriad others, he says, lobbyists for special interests are gaining more, not less, influence among legislators. Valentine says this has little to do with influence peddling or other forms of back-room dealing. Rather, it is the pervasive lack of institutional knowledge and political experience among House and Senate members — their inability to bring years of briefings, committee hearings and floor conversations to bear on arcane legislative language — that boosts lobbyists’ roles.
Valentine cites a conversation with a professional lobbyist (who, for obvious reasons, didn’t want his name on the record) to illustrate the point. Once upon a time, the lobbyist told Valentine, a petitioner could walk into a senior legislator’s office knowing that the lawmaker — whether or not he stood in support of the legislation being pitched — would at least be conversant with the issue on the table.
“ But after term limits went into effect,” Valentine continues, “this lobbyist had to explain what the program was, how it worked, how it was funded, what it was designed to do, what its limitations were. Only then could he theoretically get into why he was there.”
This was true even for members in leadership positions, Valentine says. The lobbyist “was describing things that members [once] knew, that they learned by sitting on committees. They don’t learn that stuff any more. They rise more rapidly because they have to, but without the base of knowledge that they used to have. It’s a double-edged sword for lobbyists. They have to work a lot harder than they used to, but success can be much sweeter.”
For well-funded interest groups, he adds, the payoff can be very sweet indeed.
“Many new, inexperienced legislators do not fully understand many of the complex issues for which they must make policy. They are so busy learning how to do their jobs before their term limit expires that they do not have time to adequately research each issue. This often results in legislators relying on lobbyists to educate them on issues, and while most lobbyists do not try to deliberately mislead legislators, the legislators may only get one side of multi-faceted issues.”
Sharon Jones agrees that the power structure in the legislature now favors lobbyists. Legislators looking for a sense of institutional history, Jones says, actually see 10-year veterans like her as authorities.
“If it weren’t for term limits, I would still be a newbie instead of somebody who’s been there longer than any of the legislators,” says Jones.
Jones the lobbyist likes the new trend. Jones the citizen voter is not so sure. “Quite frankly, I wasn’t elected by anyone, and I’m the one who’s making decisions,” she says. “The part of me that’s a voter in the state of Missouri really wishes it was elected officials who were able to educate themselves.”
Still, Jones is not entirely unsympathetic to members’ plight. There are some 2,000 bills introduced in every legislative session, she says. It is nearly impossible for each member to get fully up to speed on every one.
Rep. Stephen Webber, a Democrat representing Boone County, says he’s spoken to hundreds of people on the term-limits issue. The majority, he says, have concluded that term limits are a failure. The increased influence of lobbyists, he says, is a major reason why.
“Lobbyists and the leadership are more powerful because of term limits,” Webber says. “Nobody else knows what’s going on.”
Webber’s view is consistent with Valentine’s own findings. “The lack of knowledge — and not just institutional knowledge — is what jumps out at you,” Valentine says. “Not just about the House, the Senate, or who a member might be. It’s about what the state is doing, and how the state does it. It’s about what agencies do, and how they do it.”
It takes most rookie legislators about four years to learn the intricacies of their new jobs, Valentine says. The social organization of the two chambers, details of procedure and process, the balance of statewide versus local interests, management of caucus expectations: all are part of a new lawmaker’s education.
“By the time they gain this knowledge, they only have a relatively short time to utilize it before their term limit expires,” Valentine says. “In addition, the absence of experienced legislators precludes learning from more experienced peers.”
Webber, until recently the youngest representative in Missouri’s legislature, is serving his second term in the House of Representatives. “The learning curve is pretty steep,” he says. “I’m still learning. I’m 28, and I’m in the senior half of the House now. I’ve been there longer than 50 percent of the other members of the House.”
If Webber serves another two terms in the House and decides to run for, and is elected to, two terms in the Senate, he would be legally barred from serving another legislative session in Missouri. At that point he would be just 40 years old.
“I’d have done eight years in the House and know the House really well,” Webber says. “I’d have done eight years in the Senate and know how the Senate works. I will arguably be entering my most productive decade of life. But I’ll be legally be barred from ever serving in the legislature again.”
Valentine’s study indicates that when voters cut legislative careers short with rigid time constraints, they don’t just limit terms of office. They limit legislatures’ ability to act as an independent branch of government. Although there are several factors that limit the ability of a legislator to act on the people’s behalf, Valentine says, knowledge plays an important role.
In Missouri, service in the General Assembly is a part-time job. Lawmakers meet for about 75 days per year. If a senator or representative is new, much of that time at first is on-the-job training, Valentine says. That means that during two terms, an elected official will work for roughly 150 days. This makes for “no on-the-job training and very little internal mentoring.”
“Government is a very big and complex entity. It really takes quite a while to learn important aspects of it, and members don’t have time to learn that stuff.”
Another consequence of term limits coupled with having a part-time legislature is the dramatic change in the way members of the House and Senate treat each other. Over the past decade, Jones has seen an increase in combative behavior throughout the General Assembly.
“The other big difference is the level of camaraderie and respect that existed. When Peter Kinder ran the Senate, there wasn’t any kind of‚ “‘hide the ball,’” Jones says.
“He and Harold Caskey had such a level of respect for each other that they would go and sit down together for dinner and talk about what would be up the next day. They were interested in having an open and fair debate. They knew they disagreed with each other but were friendly because they were also colleagues. That’s gone now. It’s all about ‚ don’t tell anyone what’s coming up or what’s happening.’ It’s really become much more contentious, and the atmosphere just isn’t as good as it used to be.”
Unfortunately, says Valentine, restoring unlimited terms would not in itself be enough to ensure a more congenial General Assembly. “What we have done with term limits is destroyed the organizational culture that once existed,” Valentine says.
The way forward, he says, involves both a repeal of term limits and a careful, independent review of legislative performance to ensure that the legislature is prepared to meet the demands of the future.
Voters too, Valentine says, have a role to play. Most citizens have pet issues and believe their representatives and senators are in office to address those specific needs. But the satisfaction of parochial interests is not an adequate criterion for judging the success or failure of elected officials.
“Most of the people who come to the legislature are people who have been successful in their private lives as managers,” Valentine says. “The skills that make a good legislator are the ability to recognize where to compromise, when to compromise, and, indeed, the ability to compromise. It’s negotiating with people you don’t like and may not even respect and being able to recognize when those people actually make a relevant point.”
As for Jones and Webber, neither one sees the term limits amendment getting repealed any time soon. “It has to go to a vote of the people,” Webber says. “And even though everybody agrees term limits were a horrible mistake‚ there’s an anti-incumbent atmosphere, and I don’t think voters are going to do anything to help incumbents out.”