Local Editorials

Term limits: Beware of unintended consequences

FILE - In this July 26, 2017, file photo, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, speaks at a news conference at the Capitol in Springfield, Ill. On Monday, June 18, 2018, Madigan announced that a former state executive inspector general will investigate the Illinois House of Representatives after several sexual harassment scandals. (Justin Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP, File)
FILE - In this July 26, 2017, file photo, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, speaks at a news conference at the Capitol in Springfield, Ill. On Monday, June 18, 2018, Madigan announced that a former state executive inspector general will investigate the Illinois House of Representatives after several sexual harassment scandals. (Justin Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP, File)

Given Illinoisans’ situation of being under the thumb of the same House speaker for more than three decades, a term-limits pledge sounds mighty good.

State Republicans, led by Gov. Bruce Rauner, are touting what they call The People’s Pledge. On the surface, it has appeal to some, especially those who chafe at House Speaker Michael Madigan’s never-ending rule.

With the exception of two years in the 1990s, Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, has been speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives since 1983 – more than 33 years, in fact.

Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, and Jerry Long, R-Streator, signed the pledge alongside Rauner. Demmer noted Madigan was elected to office more a decade before he was born and Long noted he was age 9.

Components of The People’s Pledge are these:

1) A candidate promises to work to enact legislation to limit terms to eight years for statewide elected officials, and to limit terms to 10 years for state lawmakers.

2) Candidates are asked to vote for anyone other than Madigan for speaker when the House meets to reorganize in January after the November election.

For people who are frustrated, angry and ready for change, The People’s Pledge, as we said, has a certain appeal.

In dysfunctional Illinois, who wouldn’t want to do something – anything – to bring about change?

The term-limits portion, however, gives us pause for these reasons:

1) Term limits would deprive legislative chambers of experienced, effective lawmakers who know how to get things done. After two or three or four terms, just when a legislator has everything figured out, he or she has to start getting ready to step down.

2) Term limits would deprive constituents of legislators they like. The people might have fallen in love with their local lawmaker, but if term limits get in the way, they couldn’t keep sending him or her back to Springfield.

3) Term limits would create a new class of lame ducks, who in their final years, might do strange things, like not voting for what their constituents want anymore, because they don’t fear facing the voters again. Those lame ducks would also lose influence in their final years in the Legislature and therefore be less effective representatives of their constituents.

4) It’s unrealistic to believe term limits could be enacted in the current political climate, with those entrenched Democrats in the Illinois House and Senate being suspicious of any Republican campaign initiative that threatens their power.

Major unintended consequences of this reform effort could arise down the road, just as they did when angry voters passed the Legislative Cutback Amendment, championed by a young Pat Quinn, in 1980.

Quinn organized a petition drive to harness voter anger over lame-duck legislative pay raises approved in the House after the 1978 election. The amendment did two things: cut House seats from 177 to 118; and require single-member districts.

In theory, single-member districts were supposed to be the savior of representative government. If you didn’t like a lawmaker, why, you could just vote him or her out.

In practice, those gerrymandered single-member districts have allowed longtime lawmakers to become even further entrenched because a majority of districts are drawn to favor the party in power.

Working to rid Illinois of gerrymandered districts and creating fair, competitive, nonpolitical districts in their place — while an impossible dream to some — is a cause more worthy of support than term limits, whose unintended consequences, like the Legislative Cutback Amendment, might be discovered only after they’re enacted.

This editorial was originally published in the Sauk Valley News.

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