Lessons of Nation's Term-Limit Lab

California Experiment

Pete Knight was an Air Force test pilot who flew an X-15 rocket plane to a never-equaled 4,250 miles per hour and won his astronaut's wings when he steered the craft to an altitude of 280,000 feet.

Sheila Kuehl also achieved a modicum of fame, playing Zelda on the "Dobie Gillis" TV series in the 1950s before becoming a lawyer, law professor, and lesbian-rights advocate.

During the 1990s, however, Mr. Knight, a conservative Republican, and Ms. Kuehl, a liberal Democrat, became members of the California Legislature - twin embodiments of the cultural revolution that overtook the state Capitol after voters enacted legislative term limits.

The 1990 ballot measure produced a bumper crop of novice lawmakers, breaking the virtual monopoly by political insiders.

Prior to adoption of term limits, "ex-legislative staffer" was the single most common occupation among the 120 men and women in the two-house Legislature. But suddenly, there was a deluge of city council and school board members, cops, teachers, farmers, business owners, and other outsiders - as well as unprecedented numbers of women and ethnic minorities.

Seven years after Californians sparked a revolt against entrenched incumbency, the state's politicians, pundits, and political scientists are still debating the effects of term limits. The courts, too, continue to judge the measure's constitutionality, but California, meanwhile, is America's largest-scale test of what term limits would mean if adopted for Congress, as many advocate.

California was one of three states that adopted legislative term limits in 1990; 16 others have since done so. And in 1992, California, along with many other states, enacted congressional term limits that were later set aside by the US Supreme Court.

Term-limit supporters say the measure has cracked a figurative wall between a highly paid, professional Legislature and 30-plus million Californians. But a federal appeals court recently ruled that the 1990 measure is unconstitutional because voters were not explicitly told that politicians would be barred from ever seeking offices once they had reached the limits, six years in the state Assembly and six years in the Senate.

"In matters this important, the state simply must tell its citizens what they are voting on," US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote in a 2-1 ruling.

State election officials are appealing to the US Supreme Court not only to overturn the Reinhardt ruling, but also to continue term limits for the 1998 elections while the case is decided. Secretary of State Bill Jones says he could be in an "untenable position" when filing opens for legislative races in December, caught between a California Supreme Court that approved the term-limit measure and a federal appeals court that has rejected it. Twenty-seven lawmakers would be forced out of the Legislature if term limits are in effect next year, including the Democratic leaders of both houses.

It's clear that term limits did change the Capitol's culture. The clout of legislative leaders waned - especially after the Assembly's wily and long-serving speaker, Willie Brown, left to become mayor of San Francisco. And the term-limit babies have been more willing to deal with issues that their predecessors ignored: The 1997 legislative session was the most productive in decades, dealing with matters such as welfare reform, gambling regulation, environmental regulation, and coastal protection.

But there has been a steep learning curve as the membership, especially in the Assembly, turned over rapidly. Often, freshmen found themselves taking over committee chairmanships even as they were learning the locations of bathrooms in the labyrinthine Capitol. That greenness has meant that some lobbyists, the governor, and the bureaucracy gained clout, although old-time lobbyists who depended on decades-long relationships with key lawmakers despised the change.

One big difference is that with so many lawmakers coming from local government and civic life, grass-roots lobbying, or what some cynics call "Astroturf," has become more important. Countless public-relations firms have popped up to organize popular support or opposition to bills.

Until the US Supreme Court agrees to settle the question of term-limit constitutionality, the state's politicians and their constituents are having to endure a period of pre-campaign chaos.

An adverse Supreme Court ruling would interrupt the state's term-limit experiment, but probably not end it. Term limits are more popular with California voters now, polls indicate, than when they were adopted in 1990 - and advocates are ready with a new ballot measure to reinstate them, modified to meet whatever objections the courts may have.

* Dan Walters is a political columnist for The Sacramento Bee.

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