Term limits lead to legislative whack-a-mole

January 26, 2023 8:49 am
The House of Representatives Chamber of the South Dakota state Capitol building in Pierre. (Getty Images)

The House of Representatives Chamber of the South Dakota state Capitol building in Pierre. (Getty Images)

In the 1990s, term limits were a hot topic in a variety of states, including South Dakota. In 1992, voters here endorsed a constitutional amendment that would limit U.S. senators to two consecutive six-year terms, U.S. representatives to six consecutive two-year terms, state constitutional officers to two four-year terms and state legislators to four consecutive two-year terms.

What the term limit backers were really after was a target they couldn’t hit. While U.S. senators and representatives were included in the state constitutional amendment, their terms of office, or lack of term limits, are determined by the U.S. Constitution. While the state’s ballot measure couldn’t make rules that would throw the bums out in Washington, D.C., it did manage to mess things up on the state level.

Voters, for their part, saw “term limits” on the ballot and figured it must be a good thing. The amendment sailed through with 64% of the vote. In 2008 there was an effort to amend the constitution again, this time taking away term limits. That failed on a grand scale with 76% of voters saying they liked term limits just fine.

The folks trying to get rid of term limits could see the damage being done as legislators were ineligible to run for the same office after eight years. The argument against term limits is compelling even if it often falls on deaf ears. They give too much power to bureaucrats and lobbyists who don’t have term limits. Since those folks aren’t term limited, they develop more policy expertise and serve as the institutional memory for government, often in a way that siphons power away from the legislative branch.

To see how things have changed, let’s take a trip back in time to the pre-term limit days of the South Dakota Legislature and see how statesmanship developed when lawmakers didn’t come with a sell-by date.

Fresh off her first election victory, our new House member comes to the Capitol happy, eager and clueless. She still has that new legislator smell. Her election campaign ran on the vague notions of her personal reliability and her need to help people but, in reality, she has no idea how that’s going to happen. Lawmaking, like everything else in Pierre, is foreign to her. She doesn’t even know where the bathrooms are.

It’s difficult to tout the benefits of terms limits bringing in new ideas if it’s just a case of legislative whack-a-mole as lawmakers disappear from one house and spring up in the other.

If she’s a wise woman, she’ll spend her first two-year term with her eyes open and her mouth shut. She’ll learn the arcane language of lawmaking and the rules for legislative decorum. She’ll watch her colleagues and determine which ones she should emulate and which ones are in Pierre for the endless buffet of free meals.

With luck and determination, she’ll emerge from her first term with a solid understanding of the workings of government. Re-election will bring her back for a second two-year term determined to get down to the business of lawmaking. In this term she’ll set her legislative agenda. This can be inspired by her profession — a teacher may want to focus on education issues, a nurse on health care, a rancher on agriculture. It may also develop from her constituency and their needs.

During her second term she’ll work with the Legislative Research Council to develop her bills, she’ll take them through the committee process, she’ll find a partner to work with in the Senate and she’ll make speeches and answer questions about the bills on the House floor. She’ll emerge from this term with a bit of a legislative resume that will help her get elected a third time.

During her third two-year term, she has some decisions to make about her future. There are two leadership tracks in the Legislature. She could choose committee leadership, helping to shepherd bills in a particular area of her interest, or she could choose a political party leadership role, keeping members informed about leadership’s expectations.

After six years in office, she emerges a well-rounded lawmaker, ready to make a difference for South Dakotans. Imagine the good she could do for her constituents and her state if she had another six years or more to hone her craft. South Dakota voters threw away that chance when they instituted term limits.

Now, new lawmakers come to Pierre and, even as they figure out where the bathrooms are, they must walk through the Capitol doors knowing their legislative agenda and their leadership track. They are under an eight-year time crunch to complete as much as they can before getting kicked to the curb or, if they’re lucky, getting elected to a seat in the other house.

Term limit backers will say that shuffling the deck every few years will bring new blood into the Legislature. Well, after 30 years of term limits, there’s plenty of old blood, too.

This year’s 35-member Senate has 11 new members, with six of them sliding directly over from the House. Of those 35 members, 19 have previous stints in the House. It’s difficult to tout the benefits of terms limits bringing in new ideas if it’s just a case of legislative whack-a-mole as lawmakers disappear from one house and spring up in the other.

Term limits may sound like a way to clean house in Congress, but in the state Legislature that was never necessary. As a small state, South Dakota has a limited number of people with the peculiar skill set of winter driving survival skills coupled with an interest in policymaking. The state should have been looking at a way to hang on to its legislative expertise instead of setting limits that deprive government of the very people who want to take part in lawmaking.




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Dana Hess
Dana Hess

Dana Hess spent more than 25 years in South Dakota journalism, editing newspapers in Redfield, Milbank and Pierre. He's retired and lives in Brookings, working occasionally as a freelance writer.