Colorado's state legislature concluded its 2018 session last week. As was the case in 2017, this session was considered a productive one. And as with 2017, this productivity came as a surprise—a lot of conditions exist that would lead one to expect a gridlocked and unproductive chamber. It's a strongly ideologically polarized legislature, with Democrats largely representing urban districts and Republicans largely representing rural ones. Democrats narrowly control one chamber while Republicans narrowly control the other. It's an election year.
And yet, legislative leaders managed to broker compromises on a wide range of key issues, including transportation, public employee retirement funds, the renewal of a civil rights commission, and education funding. As Governor John Hickenlooper said, "I think the success of this session dwarfs what we did even last year."
Why did this happen? How was the government able to have two productive sessions in a row? To no small extent, this was a product of leadership. Three key figures—Hickenlooper (D), Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran (D), and Senate President Kevin Grantham (R)—made productivity a priority. They conferred with each other extensively before and during the legislative session (as they did in 2017), helping to usher through bills where they saw avenues for compromise. They were able to leverage their expertise and the relationships they've built with their caucuses and with each other to create a good example of functional state government.
Thanks to term limits, all three will be gone next year. Hickenlooper, Duran, and Grantham were all elected in 2010, and they're all termed out this year.
Now, in fairness, the non-term-limited United States Congress is hardly a model of effectiveness these days. And longstanding politicians, even if they're very experienced and competent, are rarely popular in concept. So when a bipartisan group of politicians from Beto O'Rourke in Texas to Donald Trump in the White House calls for congressional term limits, one can certainly see the political payoff.
But it is nonetheless an irresponsible stance. For one thing, as Jonathan Bernstein notes, when politicians start talking about constitutional amendments (which is what congressional term limits would require), it usually means they're lacking for actual governing ideas. It's a dodge.
In fact, term limits can be quite harmful: Legislative leaders and parties would have less power and expertise, leaving a void for lobbyists and bureaucrats to fill. Term limits mean usually a quarter or more of the legislature cannot run for re-election and are thus unaccountable to their voters. Working against expertise and accountability, term limits thus undermine the parts of representative government we need to function better.
Now, of course, Hickenlooper, Grantham, and Duran all emerged within Colorado's term-limited system. It's possible for term limits to produce other intelligent and creative leaders. Good results can occur within bad processes. But most of the time they won't. And calling for term limits for Congress will most likely produce no change at all—and actually has a chance of making our government significantly worse.