Analysis: Term limits for lawmakers — a great idea that will never come

Print More

Senate President Mike Miller, 75, on opening day Jan. 10, beginning his 32nd year as presiding officer, the longest in the U.S. He has sometimes referred to himself as "the poster child for term limits." Governor's office photo.

By Len Lazarick

Len@MarylandReporter.com

Term limits for Maryland legislators are a great idea whose time will never come. That’s particularly true of Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal for a two-term limit on Maryland lawmakers.

That could actually make things worse at the State House.

Even Republican legislators who repeatedly do the heavy lifting for their Republican governor think the idea stinks — off the record, of course.

One of several GOP stalwarts running for a fourth or fifth term chewed my ear off on opening day. “I have primary opponents,” the lawmaker said. “They’re going to use this against me.”

If the two-term limit were in effect, next year the entire GOP leadership of the House of Delegates and state Senate would be gone. So would the entire Democratic leadership of the House and Senate. All the dozens of committee chairs and vice chairs — all Democrats — would be out the door.

House Speaker Michael Busch, 71, on opening day Jan. 10, beginning his 16th year as speaker. After a liver transplant from his sister in May, Busch is looking stronger and healthier than he has in a year. Governor’s office photo.

The current leadership would be replaced with delegates and senators with at most four years of experience. And don’t forget that this is not a full-time legislature. It only meets for 13 weeks, so after four years a Maryland delegate or senator has only spent about a full year actually legislating — unlike states such as Pennsylvania or New York that meet year round.

Senior citizens at the top

The Democratic leadership of the Maryland General Assembly has certainly been around far too long for our own good.

  • Senate President Mike Miller, 75, 32 years as president, the longest serving presiding officer of a legislature in the United States and in Maryland history, 44 years in the Senate — 11 terms. He has sometimes referred to himself as “the posture child for term limits.” 
  • House Speaker Michael Busch, 71, 16 years as speaker, longest service as speaker in Maryland history, 32 years in the House of Delegates.
  • Sen. Ed Kasemeyer, 72, 7 years as chair of the Budget and Taxation Committee, 28 years in the Senate, 4 in the House.
  • Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, 71, 12 years as President Pro Tem, 24 years in the Senate.
  • Sen. Thomas Mac Middleton, 72, 16 years as chair of Finance Committee, 24 years in the Senate
  • Sen. John Astle, 74, 16 years as vice chair of Finance, 24 years in the Senate, 12 in the House;
  • Del. Joe Vallario, 76, 25 years as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, 44 years in the House.
  • Del. Maggie McIntosh, 70, 4 years as chair of the House Appropriations committee, 12 years chairing Environmental Matters Committee and many different leadership roles during 25 years in the House;

Since the great television reporter Lou Davis of MPT passed away in 2016, I am the oldest member of the regular State House press corps at 69. I have known many of these 70-something lawmakers for decades. People 70 and older still have a lot to contribute. But they should not hold onto power for so long.

Heard it all before

By the time you’ve been at the legislature for a decade or more — this is my 13th session in a row for two different news organizations — you’ve heard the same arguments on the same bills over and over. As you get older you’re less likely to change your mind about an issue or change your approach.  

On the other hand, someone with only four General Assembly sessions under their belt is just figuring out how the legislature works.

I personally favor something like a four-term limit, 16 years giving you enough time to learn the ropes, but not so long as to accumulate too much power. Proponents of term limits find a four-term limit ridiculous, and most longtime legislators find any term limits preposterous.

“That’s what elections are for,” is the repeated comeback. But voters represented by a powerful legislator like Miller, Busch or McIntosh have no reason to throw out a powerful incumbent who could be helpful to them or their district.

15 states have limits, most have ballot initiative

Fifteen states have term limits for legislators, mostly eight years for each chamber. The National Council of State Legislators has a useful primer on the topic.

“Most of the states that have term limits got them through the citizen initiative process,” says NCSL. “Only 24 states have the initiative process, and nearly all of those already have term limits or have voted them down already.”

Maryland does not have the citizen initiative, and no way is the legislature going to impose a two-term limit on itself. It would require a constitutional amendment that takes a super majority to pass.

Opponents of limits say they would cede control of the legislative process to staff and lobbyists, who already have too much control.

And Republican leaders who are much younger than their Democratic counterparts will tell you that getting rid of the 70-somethings in leadership would not improve things for the minority party or conservatives.

The people who replace Miller, Busch, Kasemeyer, Middleton or McFadden would generally be more liberal than the old timers as the newer Democrats have moved further to the left.      

  • Small Town Reporter

    I’m 56, nine years away from retirement, and Joe Vallario and Mike Busch have held state office since I was 12. There have been nine US presidents and eight Maryland governors since. A little excessive maybe?

  • charlie hayward

    The longer these officials serve, the greater they accumulate conflicts of interest. And forty years’ service builds up too many conflicts.

    As I understand it, MD Constitution Article 14, Section 2 provides a process for amending the constitution, but only at 20-year intervals (and the next interval ends in 2030.) The defect, however, with Article 14, is that the legislature itself is involved with triggering Section 2.

    Hogan, instead of trying to sell a term-limits’ amendment he knows will go nowhere, should try to sell the idea that the legislature create budget authority (i.e., appropriate money) for an objective “independent” evaluation of the legislature’s existing conflicts of interest rules against best practices, and an investigation of members’ conflicts (actual or apparent) against those practices. Just $250k (about 0.000008 of last year’s budget) would buy a lot of study and investigation. The report need not name members.

  • Snark Twain

    It does not take 4 legislative sessions for a new Delegate or Senator to recognize how the legislature works. If someone takes that long, they deserve to be voted out. I will state that there is an incredible amount of learning going on. A representative may not be fully “earning their keep” in terms of maximum relationship with the other members in the respective bodies. 4 terms or 16 years is also quite long for it allows for the consolidation of power.

    1st term one is learning. 2nd term one is “earning”. 3rd term one is owning.

    No one should “own” a seat in the General Assembly, although I know someone who tried to buy one with over $500K on three failed attempts.

  • Michael Collins

    Term limits for legislators is generally a bad idea. New legislators will rely on long-time staffers for corporate knowledge. They will then leave owing to term limits, where the cycle will be repeated, putting ultimate power in the hands of unelected career staff.

    A more effective form of term limits comes from fairly drawn legislative districts. Competitive races would increase turnover and empower the majority in the middle over the extremes at both ends of the political spectrum. That’s probably why politicians fight fair redistricting so hard.

    • Small Town Reporter

      Instead we have long-time legislators with corporate knowledge. What is worse? And most if not all of the lawmakers in MGA have college degrees, many in the field of law, who would adapt to the “process” within a very short learning curve. Many legislators who rise to state office start out in county and municipal government, so they wouldn’t be as green and naive as you assume.

  • Dale McNamee

    We do have “term limits”… It’s called voting and Maryland will survive if the lifetime incumbents aren’t re-elected…

  • Mary P.

    I think Hogan’s strategy is brilliant. He knows that the incumbent members of the MGA will never agree to it (although I am looking forward to seeing how creative their excuses will be). But supporting term limits will reinforce his image of an “anti-politician” that got him elected in 2014. While MGA members may hate the idea, there is a growing tide of voters who feel very strongly in favor of term limits.

  • Josh Friedman

    A great idea I’d like to see would be for Maryland to join 44 other states and only give Delegates 2 year terms, while staggering Senate elections so half the Senate is up for reelection every 2 years. I think the makeup of the General Assembly would change dramatically if our state officials had to face Presidential-level turnout

  • Karl Van Neste

    Maryland’s Montgomery Co. recently voted for term limits for its county council. The people in Montgomery Co have spoken – we should listen. Maybe the limit is 3 terms? Incumbency in many areas means reelection; we should change this so that talent, intelligence, and drive are the major factors.