On July 2, 1992, I stood on a black asphalt parking lot in St. Louis, Missouri, dripping sweat. The thermometer on my car read 97 degrees. The humidity made it feel like an oven. I had homework to do for my master's degree, and I didn't want to stand in that parking lot for one more moment. I wanted to go home.
But I felt like a Spartan warrior woman. I owed it to future generations to gather signatures for the constitutional amendment that would forever change how politics in Missouri played out. I wanted to pass term limits to clean out the 30-year establishment incumbents that held all the power (and corruption), and that the citizens just could never seem to defeat in an election. I wanted to clean up the way things were done in the Missouri Legislature. I would stand there until dark that day, and the next, and the next …
In the wake of the re-election of House Speaker John Boehner, many are calling for term limits to eradicate what they see as entrenched establishment power and corruption. To quote Bill Clinton, I honestly "feel their pain," but I want to make a point I feel is critical at this point in our political journey.
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My story continues …
Term limits in Missouri passed! The news came like a beacon in the night that I believed would restore integrity and even hope to Missouri politics. I worked in the capitol for a young, Republican legislator who would now have a fighting chance to do some good in the state.
There was a new boss in town, and the establishment fell to pieces that we carelessly swept to the side so a new body politic could emerge – a better one – ethical, with new ideas, closer to the people, less corrupted by power and money over time.
Missouri is now one of 15 states that have passed similar measures.
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Ironically, my husband was elected to the Missouri Legislature just as term limits would take effect. I resigned my job as legislative assistant to David Klarich to work on my husband's election campaign and serve as his media liaison once he was elected.
Watching the transformation in the hallowed halls of the beautiful Missouri state capitol up close was like watching an overweight loved one shed pounds before your very eyes. New life and new energy abounded in the capitol. The look of hope and promise was in the eye of every new elected member, and their staffs. Times were changing. The shakeup itself was a spectacle.
The "white haired caucus" was clearly not happy to be thrust from office by this new-fangled term limit. It all seemed surreal. Even those who had been term limited seemed in denial as the power slipped from their grasp. They still acted large and in charge, a stark contrast to the last day of their last session, when they looked like cocktail shrimp in suits on the sidelines of the cities they once ruled.
I was ready for the action to begin.
I watched as my beloved term limits were instituted, like the parent of a mass murderer stands helplessly by, as term limits destroyed far more than they ever built.
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This is what I learned in hindsight:
1) Absolute power doesn't dissipate, it transfers. Therefore, what happens when you institute term limits is that it transfers not to the young, fresh-faced legislators (as I had fantasized), but rather to those who are not elected: The consultants, the staff and the lobbyists. That has horrible consequences.
2) Knowledge is power. Knowledge of the political process is critical to effective legislating. Term limits destroy an intangible value that comes from experiential knowledge gained over years of legislating. As annoying as it might be, the lack of that wisdom proved to be a critical loss to the state.
3) Thomas Jefferson said, "Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct." The narcissistic, corrupt or otherwise power ravenous are prime candidates for office, because they compete at every turn and always have an eye cast on more power. Can we really be so naive to think that somehow term limits reverses their ego? When they are forced out by term limits, rather than returning to their lives and homes around the state as I fantasized, they began looking earlier and more deviously for their next power gorge. Freshmen legislators were now trading votes for jobs they were promised when they reached the limit of their terms.
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Leadership was no longer elected by a voting body with an historic wisdom of who would best lead the sacred body. Now leadership was chosen by corporate lobbyists, who had exacted their power over the process because now lobbyists had the historic knowledge of the process instead of elected officials. The problem is that lobbyists could not be "un"-elected from their powerful posts.
Now lobbyists and consultants, who all make a lot of money from the legislative process when it is well manipulated, had a well-greased cash cow to collect from. The so-called "elected" officials were all so new and ignorant to the wisdom of the process that they were easily manipulated and distracted from the beginning with what they would do when they were term limited out. This was as easy as leading lambs to slaughter.
First, lobbyists and consultants had meetings to establish how they could make the most money, working together. Karl Rove and his minions were in Missouri from Day 1, helping the establishment take advantage of what term limits would offer. The grassroots like me who had helped to institute term limits from the beginning were useful idiots in their plot to dismantle voter's power in the Missouri state capitol.
I watched as new legislators were "told" who their new chiefs of staff would be. In some cases, their legislative assistants would now be dictated (or strongly suggested) by consultants as well.
Consultants then took to king-making activities. When a seat would become open, the Rovian consultants would choose the winner for the party nominations. Grassroots committees and activist groups no longer worked within their ranks to nominate. The process was finished before it ever started, because all of the decisions came from the consultants and lobbyists who would choose their people to nominate, so that they could then control the process from top to bottom. Corporate power abounded now. None of the corruption could be "driven from office" or "unelected" at this point.
To this day, politics in Missouri is a dog-and-pony show, decided early and always by huge corporate money with powerful lobbyists working hand in hand with powerful, corrupt consultants who care only about control and money, and who are in no danger of losing their jobs or elections.
Legislators have become nothing more than pawns in a game to keep voters thinking they have any real impact in the state. Now the moment a new legislator is elected, he or she is much less concerned about learning the process and passing (or stopping) legislation that is good for Missouri. Instead, new legislators spend a great majority of their time jockeying for appointments, corporate jobs or lobbying opportunities. Elected office in Missouri has been reduced to a mining process for those who might not have received high-powered corporate jobs, or powerful lobbying gigs under other circumstances. Elected office in Missouri is no longer about serving the people of Missouri so that your constituents will re-elect you. It is now about pleasing the consultants and lobbyists so that they pay for your re-elections, and reward you when your terms are over.
An article by Virginia Young, whom I knew to cover Missouri politics during the 14 years I spent in the capitol when my husband served, quoted those on both sides of the term-limits debate.
Those opposed to term limits cited some of the reasons I have stated. Among those who believe term limits is a good idea are Steve Tilley, former speaker of the House who was elected under term limits. Tilley, on one hand, credits term limits for giving him access to a seat that he would never have had, and then he admits that he left early "for a lobbying job" – very predictable if you read my theory.
That doesn't make Tilley (a friend of mine, and ally on many issues) evil; it makes him a smart user of the term limit encumbered political process. This is how the system works now, so you can't even single Tilley out.
I didn’t do the analysis, but you can research for yourself who Tilley lobbies for and the trail that led to his job today – the one he found more enticing than serving out his term. I assure you that you will then be able to better understand my disdain for term limits.
The smart legislators will naturally gravitate to issues that can later give them a job, once they are term limited. Why wouldn't they? Where is the motivation to serve a mere eight years and then return to your bank teller or farming job like you never worked your tail off to be elected in the first place? No matter how noble it might seem to return to life just like the one the legislator held prior to legislating, most legislators probably reason that it would be a pathetic waste of effort and resources to do so. This proves my point. The thirst for power and success prior to term limits prompted legislators to work hard to keep their constituents happy. Did this result in too many pork projects? Yes. But it also made the first priority of any legislator to be re-electable and, therefore, accountable to his voting constituency. Post term limits, today, the power has transferred away from the elected official and out of the hands of the voter entirely.
Young also cites Greg Upchurch, the former president of Missourians for Limited Terms, for whom I worked on that hot asphalt pavement in the summer of '92. He cites two Missouri House speakers who went to prison for corruption prior to the law taking effect and notes that no speakers have gone to prison for corruption since. While that might seem like progress on its face, know this: The power and corruption are still there; they are just hidden now in a mangled mess of corporate lobbyists and consultants who feast at the trough of complete, unthreatened power provided by the hands of the useful idiots like me who worked to pass term limits and put them there. Media are less likely to search in the crevasses of corporate Missouri, because corporate Missouri is what keeps them in business. Think about it.
The corruption is now more insidious, greedier, more controlling, and there is nothing voters can do about it. You can't defeat lobbyists, consultants or staffers in an election. Their sick little crime ring simply circles into an ever-more powerful establishment elite that is out of the view and control of the public.
Today, it is that fight for term limits that keeps me humble. I realize now that no matter how good something sounds, how ethical something seems, one cannot really know until it has already happened what the ultimate fallout may be. This is why sticking to the Constitution as our Founding Fathers wrote it is always best. The Missouri state Constitution came out of the U.S. Constitution, and should not have been amended to include term limits.
People talk about corruption in politics, and I have seen it firsthand. Even though the entrenched establishment wielded power in ways that were perverse prior to term limits, nothing could have prepared me for what would happen when you handed that same power over to those who don't answer to the voters.
I am sure that many currently serving would vehemently deny what I am saying, as would Speaker Tilley. But, respectfully, I would submit that they didn't see both sides of term limits as I did when I was there in the state capitol both before and after term limits. I spent more than a decade of my life studying human and organizational development and what makes people tick within different affiliations and organizations. I was watching the organizational process closely as I completed a PhD on the topic. I had a front-row seat to the changes that took place, and I know what I saw. Much like so many things in my life, I wish I didn't know what I know. Since I do, I believe I am responsible to convey the dangers of something that sounds as good as term limits do at first blush.
The answer to political corruption is not term limits. The answer to political corruption is simply voter involvement and citizen engagement. Keep a close eye on those who would make you cynical, on those who would have you believe that you can't change things by your involvement, and on those who tell you that your engagement doesn't matter. It does matter, more so today than ever in America's history.
Our Founding Fathers didn't forget to put term limits in the Constitution. They knew the danger of the power of those we cannot "un"elect. The power to elect, or defeat, rests in the hands of the voters, whether or not we choose to use it. No other solution works better. Our founders knew this. We had better learn it, rather than grasp for quick-fix solutions that are merely demons in disguise.