THE STAFF DID WHAT?
By Jim Kent
Blaming gross dereliction of duty or other misbehaviour on underlings has always been popular among certain kinds of poobahs in all sorts of organizations and all categories of endeavour. When I worked on legislative staffs, we called this ploy “the staff ate my homework,” and it rarely worked. Battalions of politicians and business leaders have been packed off to jail because “the staff ate my homework” rarely works. “My staff told me it was okay....”; “I checked with my attorneys. . . .”; my accountant said. . . .”—these have worked about as well as David Berkowitz’s story that a neighbor’s dog called Sam told him to kill people.
Professional staffers, in business or in government or in athletic teams or nonprofit outfits or even households, are used to this gambit. For a couple of decades as a legislative staff member in various states and countries, I usually kept a resignation letter in my desk, ready to be signed and dated if that’s what needed to happen.
Being prepared to take blame for the boss, and to deflect credit to the boss, are basic skills for anyone in a staff position. Knowing as much or more than the boss about the boss’s job is another one, as is understanding how decisions in the organization get made and by whom and how often they’re wrong and why. A good staffer knows what the boss needs or wants before the boss is even aware of it.
And that’s one of the reasons why legislative term limits are a Very Bad Idea.
“Huh?” I hear you cry. “How does that follow?” Well, a fairly senior legislative staff person knows a great deal more about the subject of most bills than the members do. They also know who favours which bills and why, and what amendments will be supported or opposed, and lots about the history and fate of each proposal and similar ones. And they know the other staffers who are working on the same issues. In other words, staffers are a key part of the institutional memory and decisionmaking machinery of their legislatures.
Long-time legislators come in a several different flavours. Some retire in place, and may have started out that way; In a safe district you can keep your job roughly forever without working very hard. Others use the time to become subject-matter experts. There was a member in Louisiana who had been around since Jean Lafitte and had written or worked over all of the state’s civil service and pension laws, and one in Illinois who knew everything you could stand to hear about the tax code.
Term limits leave the staff in charge. You have never heard of any of the staff, nor have most reporters now that dying newspapers no longer have Statehouse correspondents, but staffers are present when a lot of decisions are made, and they can have enormous influence. They have no term limits. “The staff did what?” becomes a more urgent question, but it can be difficult to find out the answer.
And you know who else has been around a long time and knows how to get things done, or prevented? Lobbyists, the other folks who bring both substantive and procedural expertise into the State House every morning. You and the reporters have never heard of most of them either. And they have no term limits.
So, term limits not only deprive the legislature of its own corps of experts, but they also severely deplete accountability, since most people will have no idea who really runs the show. And unlike the elected members, who are required in the US to disclose just about everything they do, staff and lobbyists are allowed and even encouraged to conduct their business in confidence. Of course, almost all staffers and lobbyists are not evil or even sneaky, but term limits do open doors for those who are.
And while the staff and lobbyists keep the legislative machinery going, what are all those term-limited members doing?
Well, they know they’ll be out of their current office pretty quickly, so quite a few—and again, not nearly all—decide to spend their time getting their nests feathered for the afterlife. A few think they can win a different office after their apprenticeship is over. Like all those high-school running backs who believe they’ll be useful in the NFL, some will be right. More will decide to become lobbyists. It pays better, and it comes with fewer constraints on what you can do and fewer requirements to disclose how you do it.
It is now in their interest to align their votes with the policy preferences of their anticipated future employers. This is neither illegal nor necessarily even sleazy, but it isn’t easy to reconcile with the philosophy of having elected representatives.
Imposing term limits is easy and fully compatible with the prevailing superstitions. It’s an example of what are sometimes called “stampede laws”: Something is believed to be going badly, so policymakers hasten to pass laws that address the prevailing superstitions rather than determine whether a problem is real--and if it is a real problem, whether the stampede law is likely to help.
This happens a lot. Besides term limits, corn-based auto fuel requirements, sex offender registries, and the recent spate of bathroom laws are examples of stampede laws, rushed to pacify voters who are concerned about real or imagined problems. Pacifying people is generally faster, easier, and in the short term cheaper than educating them. As you may have guessed, therefore, stampede laws are almost impossible to undo. The superstitions that occasioned their adoption persist, sometimes forever.
Oddly, no one seems to notice that we already have term limits. They are called “elections.” But it turns out that elected officials are like schools: No matter what the evidence says, we think our ones are just fine, but everybody else’s are awful. That’s essentially what has caused term limits—lots of people think those in other jurisdictions are making poor decisions.
And they may be, but you wouldn’t fire your family physician or even your pool guy just because they’ve put in a certain number of years working for you--especially if you had no way to know who would replace them. So why do it with legislators and other elected officials?
Term limits are actually worse than that. They make everybody fire their physicians and pool guys just because they’ve been in the job for some arbitrary period.
If we’re stuck with panic-induced term limits, what can we do to limit the damage? About the only leverage we have is to vote for legislative candidates who know what they’re getting into. In no circumstances vote for anybody who proudly proclaims they don’t know anything about government and aren’t planning to learn. There are a lot of them around these days, and—well, would you visit a physician who was proud of knowing nothing about medicine?
If you have a choice, vote for the candidate who has more experience in a legislative setting. This won’t be a lobbyist--they make a lot of money and rarely have to answer a constituent’s phone calls in the middle of the night. So instead vote for somebody who has served in another legislative body and knows at least a little bit about what’s involved.
Or—my personal recommendation—vote for somebody who’s been a staffer. But do vote.