Some legislators in California are setting their own term limits, restricting their tenure to three two-year terms. What does this mean for the state's political climate? Spencer Michels reports.
SPOKESPERSON: This is for term limits in Congress. We'd like to see some fresh ideas up there. Could I get your signature today?
SPENCER MICHELS: Signature gatherers are deployed around California, trying to get on the ballot an initiative that would encourage candidates for Congress to sign a pledge not to serve more than three two-year terms. The self-limiting declaration could be noted next to a candidate's name on the ballot. It could also be publicized and used by term limit advocates against candidates who violate it by staying in office beyond six years, or who won't sign it. Lisa Powers is a tax consultant in San Francisco and California co-chair of US Term Limits, which sponsors the pledge.
LISA POWERS, U.S. Term Limits: I feel that government is too large. It invades our life. It's strangling us as business people and as citizens, and it seemed that term limits was the right way to change the type of legislator who was in Washington who would be making laws for the rest of us.
SPENCER MICHELS: Why would term limits have any impact on how big government is?
LISA POWERS: Well, because most the people who stay in Congress tend to make more and more laws after the periods of time that they're there. It's rather natural, if you send a person to Washington, they're going to make laws.
SPENCER MICHELS: The war over term limits began here in California more than eight years ago, with a campaign to institute term limits for state legislators. The initiative passed in 1990. Under the law members of the state assembly are limited to three two-year terms, and state senators can serve two four-year terms. Those are lifetime limits. After years of legal challenges, federal and state courts have upheld all of California's term limits law. Since California passed its law, voters in 17 additional states have enacted similar laws.
In three other states term limit legislation was passed but then was thrown out because of the methods by which it became law. California's legislation, among the earliest in the nation, has brought major changes in the make-up of the legislature and in who holds political power. Seniority or experience barely counts anymore. By the end of this year no assembly member will have served more than six years. And the changes start at the top. The assembly speaker is a Latino from Los Angeles and Antonio Villaraigosa, elected to office four years ago, after the incumbent decided to run for the senate.
ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA, California Assembly Speaker: Well, there's no question that term limits has benefited me personally. I wouldn't be here-I wouldn't have been elected in the first place without term limits, and I certainly wouldn't be the speaker of the California assembly. We went from four Latinos in the California assembly to thirteen over a space of about six years. I think there's been an energy and a vitality and a creativity and a willing to go beyond the paradigm that has been good for the legislature.
SPENCER MICHELS: But if you think Villaraigosa favors term limits, you'd be wrong. A former labor organizer, he has always opposed them as unnecessary.
ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: We have term limits, and they're called elections. Part of the term limits movement is part of the giving up on democracy movement. It's part of the cynicism with government movement. It's part of the frustration that people feel with government and their political leaders, and they've acted out that frustration by voting them all out.
SPENCER MICHELS: That's not a problem for Republican Assemblyman Curt Pringle. He is one of the very few legislators who favor term limits, even though it has probably shortened his own political career. He is being term-limited out this year and is running for state treasurer.
CURT PRINGLE, Republican Assemblyman: Around Sacramento what they have done is, one, moved a lot of folks through this process who have just-who became so identified with their job and their title that that's who they were, instead of bringing people who are identified by where they come from and the communities they come from. And, you know, the old discussion of let's bring new, fresh blood into a legislative process is certainly true.
SPENCER MICHELS: Pringle, who once was speaker himself, says the new rules have changed power relationships.
CURT PRINGLE: I believe the power of a legislative leader has been diminished under term limits. The committees are much more empowered. Individual members are more empowered, because they don't have to be beholden to the legislative leaders as much as they had in the past.
SPENCER MICHELS: One of those past legislative leaders was Willie Brown, whose domination of the system, while serving 15 years as speaker, inspired many Californians to support term limits according to Secretary of State Bill Jones. Jones was a former Republican assemblyman.
BILL JONES, California Secretary of State: You had highly visible legislative leaders like Willie Brown who the public perceived to be not responsive to their concerns. And I think he was certainly a focal point of the 1990 term limit fight.
SPENCER MICHELS: On the Democratic side John Burton, now president of the state senate, is a longtime ally of Willie Brown.
JOHN BURTON, California Senate President: In our state there was racism involved, because Willie Brown was the speaker. Willie Brown was very powerful, and they felt that was a way they could get rid of him. People were frustrated with government at that time, and it was a simple solution, throw the bums out. But they weren't all bums.
SPENCER MICHELS: When term limits became a fact of life, many politicians had to scramble to keep their careers alive. Republican Assemblyman Bill Leonard served first in the assembly before the law was passed. Then he entered the state senate, where he spent the maximum eight years, and now he's back in the assembly, where he can stay till 2002. He has a new role to play.
BILL LEONARD, Republican Assemblyman: And so I'm the old storyteller or institutional memory, however you want to call it, to share with members what we did before and to help members with ideas and suggestions on how we could bring legislative solutions to solve problems for people.
SPENCER MICHELS: Leonard, like most legislators, says today's issues are complicated. He's disturbed term limits has lowered the level of expertise in the legislature.
BILL LEONARD: It does bother me that the term limits that California voters adopted seems to me to be far too short to get legislators up to speed on a lot of complex issues.
SPENCER MICHELS: State Senator John Burton, who jumped from the assembly to the senate because of the law and quickly became its leader, puts it more bluntly.
JOHN BURTON: Term limits is the dumbest thing that anybody ever came up with. Public office is the only place where experience counts against you. It's stupid. I mean, do you know any other place that if you are on the job for six years and learn how to do it, you automatically get fired?
SPENCER MICHELS: But has that really changed the course of legislation? Burton says it's still too early to tell since this is the first year both houses of the legislature are fully affected.
SPENCER MICHELS: Well, what do you think is happening? What's gone wrong?
JOHN BURTON: We will have to see, but I know what's happening. You have people, well meaning people, intelligent people, that do not have the experience to do the job that they are hired to do, and legislation that gets passed is not necessarily that well thought out. The ability to compromise without getting your pockets picked is not accomplished. It'll take probably another two years before people get it.
CURT PRINGLE: This is not brain surgery. You can learn to be a legislator. Yes, it takes time, maybe a couple of years. If you're diligent, within two years you should be up to speed on most things.
SPENCER MICHELS: Lobbyists may be among the keenest observers of state government. They say the new system is bad for the legislature and difficult for lobbyists. Tom Rankin represents the California AFL-CIO.
TOM RANKIN, Labor Lobbyist: It's become much more chaotic. Legislators don't know the issues the way they used to. It's shifted the power in terms of a governmental system from the legislature.
The balance of power has moved over to the governor, who has the continuing bureaucracy, the stability of longer term in office, and, as a result, a lot more things are being done administratively, and the legislature is being bypassed.
SPENCER MICHELS: Opponents of term limits had predicted that lobbyists would have more influence, not less, because of the influx of inexperienced legislators who would turn to them for advice on complex issues. Not so, says Secretary of State Bill Jones.
BILL JONES, California Secretary of State: They find this system much more difficult than they did the old system, because in the old system the players in the legislature were all static. They were there for sometimes twenty/thirty years, and it was much easier for them.
SPENCER MICHELS: Although the jury is still out on whether term limits work on a statewide level, advocates have tried many tactics to impose them on a national level. Making term limits apply to Congress would take a constitutional amendment. That's why supporters are going the pledge route instead. In March of this year term limits groups backed a Democrat, Lois Kapps, in a congressional race in Santa Barbara, California. She had pledged to serve only three terms. Her opponent, conservative Republican Tom Bordonaro, refused to take the pledge.
SPOKESPERSON IN AD: We all know the people want congressional term limits, but Tom Bordonaro has refused to sign the term limits declaration, refused to limit his own terms. Lois Capps signed it. It's up to you. Term limits on Congress or more politics as usual.
SPENCER MICHELS: Capps scored an easy victory, and advocates like Paul Jacob, executive director of US Term Limits, took credit for the results. Jacob spoke on "Insights" with Robert Novak on America's Voice Cable Network.
PAUL JACOB, Executive Director, U.S. Term Limits: I think Tom Bordonaro's defeat sent a real message to conservatives that you cannot ignore this issue. And so I think we're going to see more conservatives coming back to the fold, so to speak.
SPENCER MICHELS: The apparent success in Santa Barbara, the self-limiting pledge, has encouraged advocates to press for its use elsewhere and, in fact, to make government give it official status. They hope the pledge and the publicity around it will prevent congressmen from changing their minds once elected and deciding to remain in office longer than six years. A constitutional amendment mandating term limits would be more to their liking, but they realize that is a far off goal.