Term Limits: Would They Help or Hurt Illinois?

The question of establishing term limits for Illinois lawmakers has been a hot-button issue for years.

Slightly more than 80 percent of voters support term limits on state lawmakers, according to a poll of 865 likely Illinois voters released in October 2016 by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

Despite apparent public support, the question of whether term limits should be imposed on legislators hasn’t made it onto the ballot in Illinois.

The state Supreme Court ruled against a term limits measure on the ballot in 1994, citing the proposed amendment as unconstitutional because it was neither “procedural” nor “structural” in subject matter.

Two decades later, the question was again blocked off the ballot.

Imposing term limits and redistricting reform has become a political rallying cry for Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

It’s hard to believe Rauner isn’t taking aim at his political opponent, Democratic Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, in calling for term limits.

If members of the House elect Madigan as their speaker for the 17th time in January, he’ll become the longest-serving state House speaker in U.S. history.

Joining us to discuss the pros and cons of term limits are Republican state Sen. Tom Rooney of Illinois' 27th Senate District; and Chris Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.

Below, Q&As with Rooney and Mooney.

Chicago Tonight: What’s your stance on term limits?

Tom Rooney: I’m an unabashed supporter of term limits. I’m a George Will convert to term limits. I didn’t start believing in them, but he converted me about 20 years ago. I think term limits are a great idea that everyone needs. There’s no easier way to put it than that.

CT: Why is that?

Rooney: I think for two basic reasons. Number one: this electoral system is so incredibly lopsided towards incumbents that getting a fair fight is almost impossible. Number two: politics does things to people. It makes them more interested in the game than in the service. That’s a double whammy that’s gotten us into the position where we are.

CT: Do you think there’s a chance that Michael Madigan won’t be reelected as Speaker of the House on Jan. 11?

Rooney: I personally don’t think there’s a single remote possibility.

I worked in the Illinois House as a teenager, as a page. The top three people on the other side of the aisle in the House, were all representatives there when I was a teenager. Madigan is one of them.

CT: Some have made the argument that you’re losing political expertise or policy knowledge by sifting out longer-serving politicians – what do you make of that?

Rooney: I split it into two. Number one: when you institute term limits, you are going to lose some good people. There’s no question about that. But A.: nobody’s indispensable and B.: you’re also going to lose a lot of people that you could never get out, even with a pry bar, in other way. So, I’m willing to give up some of the good individuals so that we can clear out some of the deadweight that’s out there.

Secondly, I really don’t think legislators have a monopoly on information and so I think it far overblows the complexity of Springfield to say that you really only are a good information broker when you’ve been there for ages and ages and ages. It really doesn’t take that long to figure Springfield out.

CT: Would you support term limits in the executive branch as well as legislative?

Rooney: Oh, absolutely. The term limits should be across the board. They should be on constitutional officers as well as legislators.

Chicago Tonight: You’ve studied term limits – comparing and contrasting Illinois’ General Assembly with legislatures of U.S. states that have imposed term limits (15 U.S. states currently have state legislature term limits). What have you gleaned from your analysis?

Chris Mooney: Most of the advocates’ arguments in favor of term limits really don’t hold up. If they argue that it’s going to be a more diverse legislature or with fewer professional politicians or less spending and more campaign competition – none of that stuff holds up. We don’t find any impact at this point. There’s some argument that term limtis are somehow going to reduce government spending. That doesn’t hold up at all. There are several studies on this. Most of them find that it actually increases government spending rather than decreasing it. No study shows that there’s a decrease because of term limits.

On the other hand, the opponents’ argument that term limits will weaken legislatures – that does tend to hold up on a variety of things: they’re less experienced, less knowledgeable about policy, the organizational structure is weakened, the leadership and committee structure is weakened. Overall, we find that the beneficiary, in terms of power, of term limits is the executive branch – primarily the governor, who ends up being more powerful. Lobbysists don’t get more power, staff don’t get more power, but the governor definitely does.

CT: Taking that into account, would term limits for executive branch positions, like the governor, be appropriate if term limits are imposed on state legislators?

Mooney: There is research done on executive term limits, but there’s very little impact. It isn’t really controversial. It doesn’t seem likely that term limits on governors actually has significant effects on public policy or politics. It doesn’t change things as much in the executive branch as it does in the legislative branch. The legislative branch generates its power and influence in the government based on seniority, being around a long time to understand the ins and outs of government.

They have some staff, but not a lot of staff. The governor has pretty much the whole executive branch at his beck and call, as well as all the leaders of power that the governor has. So, really, the legislature is very weak in comparison to the executive in almost every state in the country right now – and that’s certainly the case in Illinois.

If you think that balance of powers is a good thing in the American political system is a good thing, then term limits are probably not for you.

CT: The idea of term limits is a politically popular one among voters. Why do you think that is?

Mooney: Term limits are one of the most popular government reforms that we’ve seen in the last 25 or 30 years.

It just blew through state after state in the 90s that had a strong, direct democracy institution in this day. Ours is very weak, it’s hard to get things through. But states like California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Florida – almost everywhere where it could be done with an initiative, it was done.

A few state supreme courts threw it out because they found it to be an unconstitutional restriction on voter choice. But for the most part, it is very popular because Americans don’t like government. We really don’t like legislative branch because it’s confusing. We don’t understand it. We understand governors – like “daddy” or “mama” running the show, but the legislative process is messy, it’s never pretty, and so we don’t like it too much. So it’s easy to say “Yeah, throw the bums out.” So it’s popular. There’s no doubt about that.


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