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Term limits' influence on Illinois Governor race

11 months, 2 weeks ago by Brady Cremeens, Illinois News Network

Republican candidate Bruce Rauner will have term limits a major focus of his campaign

The call for term limits on lawmakers is not a new phenomenon, but it could have profound influence on Illinois’ governor’s race.

Republican candidate Bruce Rauner has made it clear that pushing legislative term limits will be a major focus of his campaign, and with news this week that Rauner’s team has garnered the necessary signatures to place a term limits referendum on the November ballot, it appears as though this policy point is one to be taken seriously.

Requiring 300,000 signatures from registered voters and receiving more than 330,000 ensures Rauner’s amendment referendum will have a spot on ballots in the coming election, barring a determining decision from the Illinois Supreme Court.

The referendum will ask voters if they think the Illinois Constitution should be amended to limit legislative office holders to eight years of service. It would also pose voters the question of expanding the Illinois House, shrinking the Senate, and increasing the governor’s veto power.

Chris Mooney serves as director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois-Springfield, and says term limits are popular with voters.

“This was probably a key reason Rauner won the Republican nomination. It allows him to differentiate himself from his competitors very easily, and associate himself with a very popular movement. That will be the case in the general election against Gov. Quinn as well,” Mooney said.

Term limits are currently one of the most popular political reforms, according to Mooney, and the impact on November’s race could be substantial.

The notion of limiting political tenure in office in order to remove lawmakers the public views as poor may enjoy widespread support, but that doesn’t translate to election results very often. Nationally, about 85 percent of incumbents can expect to keep their jobs each election cycle.

On this curious disconnect, Mooney explained “it’s an old story. We love our legislators but we hate the legislature.”

Mooney said high incumbency victory rates are a rational result of voters pursuing their own interests, and of politicians making sure those interests include re-electing them.

“You don’t want to cut your nose off to spite your face,” he said. “If seniority has any impact on legislative effectiveness – and it certainly does in the Illinois legislature – then consistently dumping incumbents would result in political discord within a district. Elected politicians often vote for pork and programs that causes their constituency to like them. It’s just how it is.”

This perhaps explains why it’s rarely the party in power advocating for term limit legislation. Once politicians are seated, they don’t want to leave.

The incumbency advantage can’t all be chalked up to self-serving ends, however. Much of it may just be a natural result of the job.

“They win again because they won the first time,” Mooney says. “The qualities that got them there in the first place are still there. And usually even more people know them this time around. This gives incumbents a great advantage.”

Monmouth College Political Economy and Commerce professor and former state Sen. Ken McMillan says he doesn’t believe mandated term limits is a wise policy, as sometimes politicians deserve the boot after one term, whereas others can serve honestly and honorably for many years.

“I think term limits is more likely to further dumb down the public’s knowledge of political affairs. When they are less responsible for who gets elected since it won’t last long anyway, they’ll put less effort into being seriously engaged,” McMillan said.

“Our problem is not that some people have been there too long,” he said. “Term limits won’t solve anything. Unfortunately, not a lot of people pay attention to how their representatives or senators vote. They’re more interesting in if they walk in their hometown parade and show up at their chicken dinners.”

According to McMillan, voters tend to focus more on how politicians handle constituent service like fundraisers and public appearances than the impact they actually have on public policy.

The original term limits movement can be attributed to Republican frustration with a Democratic majority in the U.S. House in the 1980s. However, once the GOP won the chamber in the mid-90s, they dropped their crusade. The banner of constitutionally limiting terms has been carried off and on by whichever party finds itself in the minority – nationally and within state legislatures – ever since.

With a recent Gallup poll showing more Illinoisans dissatisfied with their state than are residents of other states – one in four name it “the worst state to live in” – the idea of limiting politicians’ staying power may be appealing to many voters.

Exactly how appealing, however, will be seen in November.


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