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Tilting at Windmills

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January 7, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

TERM LIMITS....When Newt Gingrich engineered the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, one of the changes he made was to limit the terms of House committee chairs. Instead of allowing them to run independent fiefdoms that lasted essentially forever, Gingrich put the chairs under the control of the House leadership and limited their terms to six years. Democrats have decided to keep this reform in place, and Nicholas Beaudrot wants to know why:

Okay, goo-goos, explain this one to me: why are term limits for committee chairs a good thing? Senators and Congressmen are busy people, and it can take a good 3-5 years to build up a lot of expertise in certain areas. I'm not sure if it was caused by term limits or seniority, but Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) was moved from some Health related committee to the Intelligence committee, and it's been ... challenging for him [though he seemed to get his footing in the months before the midterms]. And I'm sure the various Cali bloggers (Ezra, Kevin, et al.), as well as those from Colorado and perhaps other states, can attest to the damage term limits have caused in their state legislatures.

("Cali" again? Sheesh.)

There's not much question in my mind that term limits have been a disaster for the California legislature. Nicholas is right: six years is simply too short a time to build up expertise, and the net result has been to give lobbyists and permanent staffers even more influence than they had in the past. After all, if you don't know your brief that well, who else are you going to turn to for advice?

But that doesn't mean I'm opposed to term limits. The old-style barons who ruled their committees for decades at a time are hardly a model to emulate. What puzzles me, though, is the length of most term limits: six years. Why does that seem to be such a popular figure? For my money, it takes three or four years for a committee chair (or legislator) to get good at their job, and they ought to then have seven or eight years to ply their trade. In other words, why not term limits of 10-12 years? It would prevent people from making careers out of their seats, but it would still allow them time to learn how to do their jobs effectively.

For my money, that's what Nancy Pelosi should have pushed for: keeping the term limits in place but extending them to ten years or so. And needless to say, the time to do it is now, not in 2012....

Kevin Drum 7:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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I assume that Representatives can serve on the committee for a couple of terms before being rotated into commitee chair; plenty of time to learn the ropes.

The term limit keeps the committee chairs from becoming personal fiefdoms.

Posted by: Wapiti on January 7, 2007 at 8:20 PM | PERMALINK

Any term limit is going to be essentially an arbitrary number that won't please everyone. 6 years, 10 years, 12.5 years, etc. Maybe a more pertinent question is whether legislating has become so complex that the Founding Father's concept of the "citizen legislator" is dead. If we can all agree that is the case, then let's make it a professional position and require training, certification, minimum standards of knowledge, etc., like any profession. Then, maybe we wouldn't have knuckleheads like Virgil Goode in there.

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on January 7, 2007 at 8:32 PM | PERMALINK

Term limits--of any length--is not the problem. The problem is the lack of an effective process for succession and turnover.

Much of the government (and industry) deals with this problem every day. Other than the normal uncertainties of elections, what's so special about committee chairs (or any other legislator)?

Posted by: has407 on January 7, 2007 at 8:34 PM | PERMALINK

It really takes ten years to gain sufficient knowledge in these areas?

If they didn't have to spend every second they aren't on the floor out whoring for money, the current terms limits would be fine.

Posted by: Ringo on January 7, 2007 at 8:36 PM | PERMALINK

Term limits on being a chair doesn't necessitate being term-limited to a committee, I believe.

Also, while I am not familiar with California's legislature, often times in the state houses "term limit" when applied to a legislator means they cannot hold the office (House member, Assembly member, State Senator, whatever) more than the prescribed limit. That is really bad, because as Kevin says, the hustle to move up or move on basically destroys the assimilation of technical competence in an individual's position.

But that kind of term limit is clearly not happening to the U.S. House under Speaker Pelosi.

PS extra crab puff to Inkblot for his outstanding pose!

Posted by: Greg in FL on January 7, 2007 at 8:41 PM | PERMALINK

> For my money, it takes three or four
> years for a committee chair (or legislator)
> to get good at their job

What?!? In the US military, and in most large corporations, new college graduates spend their first 10 years of employement in a series of assignments lasting 1-2 years. They are expected to move to a new, complex, and difficult environment, get up to speed rapidly, and be productive every _24 months_. Subsequent assigments may be longer, and some people choose to become "subject matter experts" and stay in one area for the rest of their lives, but most professionals move from area to area fairly often. Once you get to the sub-executive level the moves are even more striking; it is typical for a company to take a guy with all engineering/operations experience and put him in Marketing for example.

In fact, most professionals I know start to get bored after 3 years in a given job. 4-5 YEARS to learn the ropes of overseeing/legislating a certain area? Sheesh.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on January 7, 2007 at 8:43 PM | PERMALINK

4-5 YEARS to learn the ropes of overseeing/legislating a certain area? Sheesh.

That's what I'm saying, if it takes them that long to learn the ropes, then they're spending way to much times doing things that they shouldn't.

Posted by: Ringo on January 7, 2007 at 8:48 PM | PERMALINK

Military projects (such as new fighter jets or spy satellites) have a similar problem.

They are supposed to headed and controlled by some member of the military. However intelligent people in the military get promoted and transferred on a much much shorter timescale than the life of a project.

So where is the "institutional memory" about such projects? Much of it is in the contractors, but it is not wise to let the foxes be in charge of the hen-coop. (substitute "lobbyist" for "contractor" to give the current Republican paradigm).

So several FCRCs were setup to provide longtime monitoring. (one such is The Aerospace Corporation.)

How good a job the may do might be questionable (if you have the right clearances), but they do provide a balance to the contractors.

At one time I thought committees had permanent long-serving staff members that provided a similar function.

Then again many of them may have been lost in Republican loyalty purges and been replaced by hacks that were involved in fund-raising.

Posted by: murkin on January 7, 2007 at 8:48 PM | PERMALINK

If it takes 3 to 4 years to learn to chair a committee, how long does it take to learn to be President? Is George Bush that much smarter than the Democratic committee chairpersons?

Posted by: ex-liberal on January 7, 2007 at 8:52 PM | PERMALINK

Two very different (albeit related) discussions: term limits applied to elected offce (e.g., Representative), and term limits applied to non-elected functions (e.g., Committe Chair).

Beaudrot is mixing the two--as you appear to be Kevin? Although I can find some sympathy for term limits for elected office that accounts for the learning curve, that is very different than the argument for extending "term limits" for non-elected functions.

Posted by: has407 on January 7, 2007 at 8:52 PM | PERMALINK

As, I believe, has been mentioned: limiting individuals terms as chair doesn't mean restricting their time on the committee - either before or after. Time before should bring them up to speed and time after should let them provide a learned counterpoint to lobbyist-provided information.

Posted by: umbris on January 7, 2007 at 8:58 PM | PERMALINK

Ah, goo-goos.

So now the great Kevin Drum wants to lengthen term limits to "ten years [i] or so.[/i] [my italics.]

Newt was right. We have to prevent these mini-monarchies from arising in the federal government. A ten to twenty year term limit is effectively no term limit at all. It's giving a man his own little fiefdom. You guys know what a fiefdom was? Back in the middle ages, guys commanded these fiefs over which they lorded. That's the analogy here.

Now you want to institute these long term limits, so these guys can in effect never be voted out. We all know democrats hate democracy, but do you have to be so bald faced about it?

Posted by: egbert on January 7, 2007 at 9:02 PM | PERMALINK

Beaudrot: why are term limits for committee chairs a good thing?

Two words: Bill Thomas.

Posted by: R. Porrofatto on January 7, 2007 at 9:10 PM | PERMALINK

We all know democrats hate democracy, but do you have to be so bald faced about it?

"If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator." -- George W. Bush

Posted by: Killjoy on January 7, 2007 at 9:10 PM | PERMALINK

Whoops, I'm a bit behind in my acronyms - FCRCs are now FFRDCs - Federally funded research and development centers (the official list).

But anyway, any institution that has often changing leadership needs long term career people supporting it that "know" the area. Then again I seem to recall that some of the FFRDCs got new management that told the troops that they couldn't talk about global warming.

Posted by: murkin on January 7, 2007 at 9:10 PM | PERMALINK

We have two years, then the 2008 elections. Que cera cera. Ms. Pelosi may desire change, as opposed to the sheer autonomy of dsignated work groups. I kind of function the same way at work. Be careful what you wish for...I always say.

Posted by: consider wisely always on January 7, 2007 at 9:11 PM | PERMALINK

We all need to consider Newt's real motive for the original reform. It sounds very democratic, but over time it has become clear that term limited (or at least short term limited) chairmen do not develop the kind of independent political power necessary to hold the party leadership accountable.

The real proplem with the Gingrich revolution was that it focused all power in the hands of the speaker, and his senior aids (the majority leader and the wipe.) That made it easier for the speaker to enforce party discipline. It also made it easier for the leadership to ignore the voices and experience of committee chairmen. Arguably term limiting committee chairmen is one of the worst reforms in the history of congress and has contributed to the low esteem and ratical extremism that lead to the rapid fall of the Gingrich revolution.

I hope at least somebody in congress realizes that sometimes "reforms" are more damaging that they wrongs they attempt to correct. For the most part the reforms recommended by Newt Gingrich have proven to concentrate power in the hands of the very top of the party in power, just like Newt envisioned.

Posted by: Ron Byers on January 7, 2007 at 9:14 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, how much dough DO you have riding on term limits? You said "For my money" twice at the end of your post.

Posted by: Kenji on January 7, 2007 at 9:17 PM | PERMALINK

I am from Missouri. Roy Blunt was Whip. Wipe is how a lot of us Missouri Democrats think of him and his socially promoted son.

Social promotion? Why do conservatives put up with social promotion.

Posted by: Ron Byers on January 7, 2007 at 9:20 PM | PERMALINK

I thought term limits were a grand notion - until I moved to a state that has term limited state legislators.

Term limits for state senators went into effect in 1998, and in 2002 they went into effect for both chambers, and 45% of the sitting legislature was turned out. We are still paying the price. We used to send a pretty even split of staid and solid gentlemen to the statehouse because they were good at the jobs we repeatedly sent them to do. Now it seems to have evolved to "Well, we can send this asshole to Jeff City for six years, and we won't have to deal with him for a minute."

Posted by: Global Citizen on January 7, 2007 at 9:21 PM | PERMALINK

Hello fellow JaCoMo resident Ron Beyers!

Posted by: Global Citizen on January 7, 2007 at 9:22 PM | PERMALINK

egbert: So now the great Kevin Drum wants to lengthen term limits to "ten years [i] or so.[/i] [my italics.]

Wow, man, nice italics!

Posted by: dave's not here on January 7, 2007 at 9:32 PM | PERMALINK

Ah, egbert...You make it look so easy, but as another poster said to a pale imitation, "Quality wingnuttery isn't as easy as it looks."

Posted by: Global Citizen on January 7, 2007 at 9:37 PM | PERMALINK

The very first comment in this thread made the key point - in most cases new committee chairs have already served on the committee in question for many years. So it really shouldn't take them three or four years to learn how to run the committee.

Any number is arbitrary, but some limit seems perfectly reasonable, or you can end up with Jesse Helms (or a similar figure from the left) in charge of a key committee for 16 years. And that's definitely not good for the country.

Posted by: armand on January 7, 2007 at 9:41 PM | PERMALINK

Comments like egbert's tell the tale.

Pelosi isn't anxious to appear as though she wants to change the rules to benefit Democrats. That's been one of the chief criticisms of GOP control.

Posted by: wishIwuz2 on January 7, 2007 at 9:48 PM | PERMALINK

Any number is arbitrary, but some limit seems perfectly reasonable, or you can end up with Jesse Helms (or a similar figure from the left) in charge of a key committee for 16 years. And that's definitely not good for the country.

Anyone remember Bud Shuster(R-Pa.), former transportation committee chair? I don't know how much money was wasted building an airport in the middle of his nowhere rural district. Then there was his, um, rather inappropriate relationship with a certain female lobbyist.

Posted by: Ringo on January 7, 2007 at 9:51 PM | PERMALINK

As I recall, Shuster was the one who had a big portrait of himself hanging in the committee's meeting room. Classy.

Posted by: Ringo on January 7, 2007 at 9:53 PM | PERMALINK

Screw term limits of all kinds. As long as an individual can do the job, and folks want them to continue in that job, what the frick is the issue?

Are we all so inept that we need the nanny state stepping in and protecting us?

Posted by: Keith G on January 7, 2007 at 10:14 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin: "'Cali' again? Sheesh."

It's irritating, fersure -- but then again, why are we bothered by that, yet find the use of "L.A." to be acceptable?

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on January 7, 2007 at 10:32 PM | PERMALINK

egbert: "You guys know what a fiefdom was? Back in the middle ages, guys commanded these fiefs over which they lorded."

Obviously, there are not now -- nor have there apparently ever been -- pointy-headed intellectuals residing in egbert's obtuse world, which remains tragically confined to the area between his house and the Greyhound bus depot.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on January 7, 2007 at 10:44 PM | PERMALINK

From this New York Times article:

In a move that caught some new Democratic chairmen by surprise, House rules pushed through by the Democrats this week retained the six-year limit on chairmen imposed by Republicans, but the leadership reassured lawmakers they would revisit the restrictions when there was less attention focused on the dawn of the Democratic era.

In other words, wait until the heat's off then pull a fast one.

I think the general rule of thumb in Washington is that restrictions on power and term limits are a swell idea when it's the other party, but when it's your party, you want all the power you can get your grubby mitts on. Works for both sides.

Still, the Republicans put limits on themselves, when they had the power. Will Democrats do the same?

Term limits are a great idea. Thank God we have them for Presidents, and there are a lot of Senators who have long outstayed their welcomes.

If this means government is less efficient, that's not always a bad thing either.

Posted by: harry on January 7, 2007 at 11:11 PM | PERMALINK

Donald from Hawaii:

It's irritating, fersure -- but then again, why are we bothered by that, yet find the use of "L.A." to be acceptable?

Well, we back here in the U.S. find certain geographical usages a bit annoying.

Posted by: "mainlander" on January 7, 2007 at 11:14 PM | PERMALINK

It's irritating, fersure -- but then again, why are we bothered by that, yet find the use of "L.A." to be acceptable?

C'mon, do you really have to ask that question?

Although it is funny that L.A. is acceptable, but S.F. is not. I think it's because L.A. is easy to say and slightly musical, whereas S.F. is clunky.

Saying the letters, I mean, not the cities themselves!

Posted by: craigie on January 7, 2007 at 11:50 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, a bit OT here but please, PLEASE start a thread on this topic when you can:

http://news.independent.co.uk/world/middle_east/article2132574.ece

Shorter version: The Iraq War really was about oil all along, specifically breaking through the Iraqi nationalization of its oil reserves to allow US and British companies to get filthy rich. That's what this draft law in the Iraqi parliament-- being forced through by American sponsors-- is all about.

This is insane. If you think Iraq is bad now, try to imagine how it'll be like when it becomes obvious to the Iraqi people that the US is now openly working hard to steal Iraq's oil revenues for itself. The Shiites, already seething with range against the US and Britain, will finally erupt in all-out war against us, and even the Kurds may join in against us-- we'd be taking their revenues, too. Cheney's been desperate for this since the start of this terrible conflict.

Posted by: Tomasz on January 8, 2007 at 12:02 AM | PERMALINK

Tomasz: A few of the regulars here have left comments on a post you can find here on that very topic.

Posted by: Global Citizen on January 8, 2007 at 12:06 AM | PERMALINK

Thanks, GC. I hope more people start drawing attention to this so that it spreads virally, and incites such widespread anger that the MSM has no choice but to report it. Thus far, the NYT, Washington Post, LA Times and other major organs of the mainstream corporate media have chosen to ignore this-- probably out of apathy, but maybe indeed because more than a few of their wealthy corporate owners have a stake in the very companies seeking to turn a buck in Iraq.

We can't let this go unreported-- this is probably the single most important legislative action in the entire brief history of the new Iraqi Parliament.

We have to whip up enough of a furor so that the mainstream media has only two choices-- report on it, or lose all credibility as reputable sources of important news. Letters to the editor, protests, maybe even angry demonstrations verging on riots may be needed.

Posted by: Tomasz on January 8, 2007 at 12:50 AM | PERMALINK

If a limit of two terms is good enough for the President, it is good enough for every elected official in the US and 50 states. The Constitution made different term durations on purpose - the Representatives, with 2-year terms, are supposed to be the closest to their constituents. The Gingrich era Republicans who promised to personally abide by term limits (who are still in office) have mostly reneged on their promises. Controlling the pursuit of power is the purpose of term limits. The newly elected Dems who promise us clean government must be protected from the corruption of lobbying by term limitations. The argument that they don't know their jobs is bogus. By the time they are in their 3rd term, they've lost the fire in the belly that made them want to be there in the first place.

Posted by: Tom Adams on January 8, 2007 at 12:55 AM | PERMALINK

We all know democrats hate democracy

I can't think of too many Dems that were hating Democracy, after the voters gave the Republicans a "thumpin" last November.

Yes, I'm still bitter about having my patriotism questioned.

I don't like term limits because they can remove a competant person with one that can't handle the job.

For example, Bush replacing Clinton.

Posted by: AkaDad on January 8, 2007 at 1:05 AM | PERMALINK

I'm tired, the above should say,

I don't like term limits because they can remove a competant person and replace him or her with one that can't handle the job.

Posted by: AkaDad on January 8, 2007 at 1:11 AM | PERMALINK

Beaudrot: why are term limits for committee chairs a good thing?

Answer: John Dingle (D, General Motors)

Posted by: fafner1 on January 8, 2007 at 1:40 AM | PERMALINK

Ex-thinker: "If it takes 3 to 4 years to learn to chair a committee, how long does it take to learn to be President? Is George Bush that much smarter than the Democratic committee chairpersons?"

You honestly feel that George Bush has, at some point, learned to be president?
Talk about setting the bar low... You'd need a shovel for that one.

Posted by: Kenji on January 8, 2007 at 1:50 AM | PERMALINK

Son, If you can't become an expert as a committee chair in a year you don't belong there.

Oh, and what do you mean by expert? Knowledge of what? The subject matter? You better know most of that before you take the chair, or you should be given the chair.

Posted by: James on January 8, 2007 at 2:37 AM | PERMALINK

"We all know democrats hate democracy...."

Um, see any irony connecting the two key nouns in that sentence?
Now, egfart, you answer some thing you might actually know a bit about: do liars hate lying?

Posted by: Kenji on January 8, 2007 at 4:35 AM | PERMALINK

Just to remind you, there is a difference between term limits in regard time as a senator or representative, and time limits in regards time as a committee chairman. Let the old geezers stay on as senator or representative as long as they like. After all, the electorate should be able to elect whatever old geezers they like. But let the committee chairmanship, say, rotate among the old geezers of the majority party.

Posted by: raj on January 8, 2007 at 9:09 AM | PERMALINK

May have already been suggested, but why not require a rep to serve 1 term on the committee before being eligible for a 3 or 4 term chairmanship?

Posted by: Doozer on January 8, 2007 at 10:02 AM | PERMALINK

In relation to what several commenters have noted, logically there doesn't seem to be any intrinsic advantage to being the chair vs. being a member of the committee as far as "becoming an expert" (which IMO is not the best wording since it gives equal weight to a career politician and someone who has dedicated a much more significant portion his or her life to the subject -- better to say "learning the ropes"?). So requiring someone to serve as a regular member (which is usually the way it works anyway) before becoming chair would seem to resolve Kevin's issues. Of course, logic has never been a strong point when it comes to the inner workings of our legislature, so maybe being the chair does provide a unique type of experience; if that is the case then it seems that we should create a more logical system rather than try to work around the flawed system we currently have.

I also don't understand saying six years is bad but ten is good because that is sufficient time to become an expert. If it takes several years for someone to become good at such an important job why would you ever start over with someone new until you were forced to? Just because it is the lesser of two evils compared to permanent chairs? I don't buy that.

Posted by: ibid on January 8, 2007 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK

Term limits—both for members of legislative bodies and for leadership in those bodies—mostly serve, at the expense of the public's ability to control government, the interests of outside lobbyists and perhaps secondarily the long-serving legislative staff that shift from boss to boss, by limiting the possibilities for those elected officials serving in term-limited positions to develop the knowledge and skills to effectively deal with the long-serving, non-term-limited people active dealing with the same issues.

Posted by: cmdicely on January 8, 2007 at 12:26 PM | PERMALINK

I think "S.F." is actually OK tho not in use much verbally as it IS chunky to say. It's "Frisco" that's not OK.

As to "L.A.," it is the generally used appellation, but we in No.Cal. (as opposed to LowCal.) often call it "LaLa Land."

Posted by: Cal Gal on January 8, 2007 at 1:22 PM | PERMALINK
It's "Frisco" that's not OK.

"Frisco" is okay, iff you are talking about Frisco.

Posted by: cmdicely on January 8, 2007 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

KD: ("Cali" again? Sheesh.)

Now don't be offended! "Cali," as you know, is Greek for "beautiful." "Cali blogger" was clearly intended as praise for the grace and charm of this blog.

Posted by: W. Kiernan on January 8, 2007 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe I'm naive, but I would assume that a committee chair should have spent some years on the committee before becoming the chair, so it shouldn't be that much catch up. 10 years was sounding good, but once you really think about it, there's nothing wrong with 6 years either as long as you're not naming chairmen who aren't familiar with the doings and material of the committee.

Posted by: Jimm on January 8, 2007 at 2:58 PM | PERMALINK

> develop the knowledge and skills to
> effectively deal with the long-serving,
> non-term-limited people active dealing
> with the same issues.

However, it does address the issues of regulatory capture (that is, capture of the long-serving representative by the entity he is supposed to be overseeing), general insiderism ("Broderism"), and the desire for ordinary everyday people to be represented by someone who has actually lived and sent a child to school in their district within the last decade.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on January 8, 2007 at 4:02 PM | PERMALINK
However, it does address the issues of regulatory capture (that is, capture of the long-serving representative by the entity he is supposed to be overseeing)

Does it? I'm skeptical of that. It reduces the risk of a long-running chummy backscratching relationship between the official and the regulated entities, at the same time it reduces the opportunity for the elected official to get well-developed independent understanding and influence, and promotes office-holders seeking to make a superficial splash before moving on to the next position, which encourages symbolic action where substantive conflict with the entrenched interests is minimized to make sure that an "acheivement" can be completed, even if it doesn't hold up in the long term.

Seems to me that it encourages a slightly different though functionally rather similar kind of capture of machinery of regulation by the regulated industry.

general insiderism ("Broderism"),

Perhaps, though the term-limited musical-chairs government of California suggests otherwise.

and the desire for ordinary everyday people to be represented by someone who has actually lived and sent a child to school in their district within the last decade.

If that desire was really important to voters, they could, you know, vote for people based on it, which would adequately address the desire.

Posted by: cmdicely on January 8, 2007 at 4:18 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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