Oregonians May Get Another Turn at Term Limits

Oregon experimented with legislative term limits more than two decades ago and the outcomes weren’t what was promised. Once lawmakers were elected, they immediately started angling for their next job, often overlooking serious policy choices staring them in the face.

Oregon experimented with legislative term limits more than two decades ago and the outcomes weren’t what was promised. Once lawmakers were elected, they immediately started angling for their next job, often overlooking serious policy choices staring them in the face.

Oregonians may get another chance to vote for legislative term limits. It would be a good opportunity to buy the idea once and for all.

Unsuccessful GOP gubernatorial candidate Bud Pierce is sponsoring an initiative to re-impose legislative term limits and apply them retroactively to sitting lawmakers. His measure, if it makes it to the 2018 general election ballot and is approved by voters, would disqualify Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, even though both will be running for re-election on the same ballot.

Term limits are not theoretical in Oregon. Voters approved them overwhelmingly for state and federal lawmakers in 1992. Ballot Measure 3 was partially voided in 1995 by the Oregon Supreme Court to exclude congressional representatives. The entire measure was tossed out in 2002, but not before the fruits of term limits could be assessed. To say the least, the fruit was over-ripe.

Instead of the intended new blood in the legislature, several former lawmakers decided to return to office. That was the good news compared to what happened to the newcomers. They hadn’t settled into their Capitol offices before beginning to plot their next electoral opportunity.

With just three terms in the Oregon House, lawmakers had to make their mark quickly and aim at their next political dart board. A body once distinguished by bipartisan collaboration switched almost overnight to caucus politics by both parties and a political merry-go-round by individual lawmakers of office-shopping.

Perhaps ironically, caucus leaders assumed greater power and imposed stricter party fealty. The concept of new blood morphed into political bloodletting, political opportunism and kicking the can down the road. Why make tough decisions when you would be gone in three or fewer sessions?

Oregon survived the experiment with term limits, but arguably didn’t benefit from it. Now it may have a chance to restore the concept.

For the moment, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum must rewrite the measure’s ballot title – the most-read part of any ballot measure – to refer to its retroactive provisions. Then Pierce and his allies must collect 88,184 valid Oregon voter signatures by next July to place the measure on the November 2018 general election ballot. Because the idea of “throw out everybody” has a certain visceral appeal, chances are good the measure will make it to the ballot.

Previous Oregon term limits were voided largely on procedural grounds. It is still an open question whether term limits are constitutionally valid. Oregonians – and Americans – have accepted the two-term limit for governors and presidents.

Whether constitutional or not, the question Oregon voters should ask is whether term limits actually do what they promise to do. Empirical evidence in Oregon suggests they didn’t. They had the inimical impact of creating a shifting cast of political characters who began running for a new office moments after being elected to a legislative seat.

The concept of new blood ignores the demonstrable benefits of legislative continuity, not to mention legislative experience. It would be hard for anyone but cynics to deny the enduring contributions of long-serving lawmakers such as Senator Peter Courtney, a Democrat, and Rep. Eldon Johnson, a Republican, to mention only a few. Senate GOP Leader Ted Ferrioli has served for five terms and newly elected Senate GOP leader Jackie Winters has served in the Oregon legislature since 1998. 

Ironically, most lawmakers serve for less than 10 years and move on with their lives. Insiders know it takes at least two to three terms in the legislature to learn the ropes, let alone influence policy.

Hailing term limits is a lot like shopping for a brain surgeon who just graduated from med school. They may be cheaper and less experienced, but they aren’t who you want cutting into your skull to dig out brain tumors.

There will be a lot of heavy breathing if the term limit measure reaches the ballot. Voters would be well advised to seek out the voices of people who lived daily with term limits and can tell you how they worked out in real life.