The wrong term

Oh, so the gridlock problem at the Legislature and the influence of special interests are caused by term limits. We don’t think so.

Illustration By Conrad Garcia

Led by the editorial writers and reporters at the self-deluded Los Angeles Times, a media pile-on is under way to blame “term limits” for the incredible dysfunction we are witnessing in the Legislature in Sacramento.

I hope thinking journalists will help put a stop to this budding case of journalistic malpractice before its foolish mantra spreads to the rest of the sheep in my profession, as they plop onto their comfy duffs and congratulate themselves for playing no part in the debacle.

If the media dared to look in the mirror for a change, they would see that term limits are not to blame for gridlock over the $34.5 billion budget deficit or the cause of blatant payoffs to political donors from the passage of customized laws amid the crisis.

As many researchers note, the most virulent opponents to term limits are political staffers, lobbyists and journalists—the three groups who make a living off of being insiders and who abhor the risky work of regaining the trust of a new crowd of politicos every several years.

But the media shamefully refuse to admit their bias.

Thus, we see the spectacle of a major paper like the Times (but The Orange County Register and others are nearly as bad), which, in recent days, ran a purported “news” story examining the crazy quilt of 50-plus fees Democrats want to slap onto everything from diapers to light bulbs in response to the Republicans’ steadfast refusal to raise taxes to plug the deficit.

In explaining the underlying cause for the fiasco in Sacramento, the sole outside expert quoted by the Times stated, “Term limits are coming home to roost.” This Berkeley professor also blamed Republicans; he declared that because there is no way for Republicans to retake the majority in Sacramento, they have “no incentive to be reasonable. Particularly if you are looking for your next job.”

This unsupportable claim about what motivates the minority party in the post-term-limits era was not countered in the Times by an outside expert who might actually grasp the facts.

Balanced observers correctly blame what is unfolding in Sacramento on a nasty phenomenon known as “redistricting.”

Redistricting is a practice in which the majority party—the Democrats for now—draws up boundary lines that create the voting districts in which we all live and in which we sometimes even bother to vote.

Two years ago, the California Democratic Party created a new set of districts for California, cynically designed to end competition for legislative seats. In short, they stole the democratic voting process away from the people. They did this by carefully drawing bizarrely configured districts around enclaves of Democrats and cutting out neighborhoods with too many pesky Republicans, thus ensuring a Democrat is elected.

It wasn’t done just for Democrats. This was the final flourish on a long effort by both parties to end cross-party competition in California. The Republicans got their own so-called safe seats in the sleazy bargain.

California voters realized back in the 1990s that with redistricting, they were being force-fed an increasingly narrow selection of party-approved automatons. So, in the late 1990s, voters approved the open-primary initiative. It allowed Democratic voters to cross over to vote for interesting Republicans and Republicans to cross over to vote for interesting Democrats, as in many states.

Experts say that freeing up voters in this way encourages moderates to run and stymies the parties’ effort to stack the statehouse with unthinking partisans.

But the parties couldn’t have that. The Democratic Party sued to halt the California open primary. It lost in lower courts but finally won before the Supreme Court. (However, the justices pointedly stated that an open primary is not forbidden for California; just reword the law next time.)

Nick Tobey, chairman of Californians to Protect the Open Primary, said, “The media are blaming term limits because issues like redistricting and the open primary are complicated and bore the media. Reporters have not fully reported to the public that the politicians now choose their voters by drawing their own districts, or even what a district is.”

Term limits play a role in the state Legislature, but I say it’s mostly positive. Shame on the media for saying term limits are the root of the evil.

Darry Sragow, a respected Democrat strategist and managing director of the public-policy consulting firm Public Strategies, said the effects of term limits are subtle.

“Because members are limited to just six years in the Assembly, it’s too short a time to create a powerful Assembly speaker, so you end up with 80 assemblymembers acting as their own power centers. Yes, it’s inherently less efficient to make all members more independent of the speaker than they used to be. But you could argue that that’s exactly what voters had in mind with term limits.”

I argue precisely that. If a powerful speaker who controls assemblymembers were a healthy way to get rid of sellouts and blowhards in the Assembly, Californians would not have used term limits to drive out Speaker Willie Brown and his ilk.

Brown turned the Assembly into his fiefdom and spawned so much disastrous policy that by the time he was forced out in 1996, California was left with the worst schools, worst workers’ compensation system and most-abused welfare and public-health-care systems in the nation, to name a few horrors.

Strong-man governing and permanent incumbents created each of these nightmares, as well as the taxing imbalances that fueled our vast budget deficit. Longtimers also forced through energy deregulation in 1996 even though lazy, biased media love to inaccurately blame new, term-limited legislators who’d just arrived.

Ratcheting up its attack, on May 9, the Los Angeles Times’ editorial writers blamed term limits for the shameless buying and selling of votes in Sacramento today.

The journalists were miffed that Mercury Insurance Group, a huge contributor to liberal Democrats like Alameda’s Senator Don Perata and Los Angeles’ Assemblyman Dario Frommer, got these men to sponsor custom bills to let Mercury draw customers away from competitors and let agents collect fat new brokers’ fees.

I contacted a chief of staff to a Democratic member of Congress in California (who didn’t want to be identified), to ask how the big boys explain the blatant peddling of votes.

This chief of staff was incredulous about the media bias against term limits. “Every member of the California congressional delegation understands that what is happening in Sacramento is caused by the Democrats’ abolishing of meaningful general elections in California, both at the state and congressional levels, and not by term limits,” this powerful Democrat said.

“The only two groups the legislators need to please now are big-money funders of their primary races, and the lunatic fringe who show up to vote in the primary races. Wake up!”

Why can’t the media get it right? Because they are so very culpable.

Except in smaller media markets like Fresno, the daily media refuse to cover the democratic process. They give only cursory coverage to state legislative races and the world inhabited by individual state legislators. The public is unaware of what kind of turkeys represent them. This is entirely the media’s fault.

State Assemblyman Keith Richman, who is among a handful of emerging moderate Jewish Republicans in California, is an exception to the turkey rule.

He and moderate Democrat Joe Canciamilla and 10 or so others in Sacramento are not afraid to upset the special-interest groups and fringe voters who now control primary races. The Richman-Canciamilla group is fashioning a bipartisan budget fix sure to upset everyone.

Richman does wish term limits in the Assembly were lengthened from six years to eight to match the Senate but said the media “is just wrong putting its key focus on term limits.”

Said Richman, “If the open primary had not been invalidated by the Supreme Court, we would not have this dysfunction. If the parties had not drawn safe seats to make the general election irrelevant, we would not have this dysfunction. Our political leaders would be more from the center—like California voters really are.”

Every day, Richman watches as lawmakers in Sacramento “are pushed to support the extremes and are very, very unlikely to go against any special interests who can take them out in the next primary. I cannot tell you how hard it was to simply put in place a process to talk across the aisle.”

Media sheep also like to claim that California’s term limits are to blame because legislators are too inexperienced to handle the complexities of Sacramento lawmaking.

What an utter crock. If true, we wouldn’t have the pathetic phenomenon in the Senate, where, for months, 40 politicos with an average of eight years in Sacramento (most came from the Assembly) could not face the deficit they helped create by approving mountains of costly special-interest laws.

Many senators continue the folly. Orange County’s unimpressive Democratic Senator Joseph Dunn had the gall to propose legislation in March to hand public-safety workers a fat new 100-percent pension, as if the cushy 90-percent retirement pay they got wasn’t already killing taxpayers. Did I mention that Dunn got $20,000 in campaign funds from fire and police unions?

So, the moment you hear the media blame term limits, remember that in this case, reporters are the moral equivalent of lobbyists. They hate having to toss their Rolodexes every six years and persuade powerful new people to trust them.

That’s why lobbyists spent millions fighting California term limits and, unlike the conventional wisdom states, hate them still, and it’s why journalists are fomenting a media pile-on.

It’s a sad day to see these two groups finally working together.