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Daniel Ruth

Term limits put limit on leadership

Perhaps one of the perverse upsides to throwing out all the bums every eight years is the body politic gets to have a whole new cabal of bums to blame. • In addition to tackling such weighty items as school reform, budget deficits, criminal justice, jobs and taxes, roughly a third of Florida's House members can share the experience with Gov.-elect Rick Scott in that most important of all Capitol challenges — finding the proper loo. • It's just down hall. Take a right at all the lobbyists, turn left at the giant checkbook, then go down three doors past the Jeff Kottkamp expense account memorial — and you're almost there.

Or put another way, Speaker Dean Cannon isn't just presiding over the Florida House. He is mother hen, Sherpa guide and legislative midwife to the new breed of elected newbies still trying to figure out where their — figuratively speaking — political keisters are.

Keep looking. They'll show up — eventually.

Cannon must contend with the fact that roughly one-third of his charges — and aren't they the cutest little dickens you've ever seen? — have two years or less of experience in Tallahassee. Indeed, in the 120-member Florida House, some 44 representatives are true rookies serving their very first terms. Freshman beanies optional.

Pitting these lambs against the Tallahassee influence-peddling corps is a bit like setting up St. Francis of Assisi to have lunch with Bernie Madoff.

We have all these fresh faces waiting to be set upon by the entrenched backslappers of Apalachee Parkway because back in 1992, the fine voters of Florida thought it would be a bully idea to impose term limits on those serving in Tallahassee to eight years — and then, Out, foul spot of pol.

The idea at work here is that by the time elected officials spend eight years in office they will be so corrupted, so compromised, so beholden to evil money changers that they must leave office to make room for another generation of public servants to be corrupted, compromised and bought and paid for like a cheap two-bit gin joint chippie.

Somehow this was rationalized as good government.

The problem, of course, is that all term limits has accomplished is the creation of an amateur political class. More cynically, the imposition of term limits has transformed the Florida Legislature into little more than a finishing school on how to become one of the silk-stocking lobbyists — who prey upon the guppies who succeed them in elected office.

In this era of tea party fulmination and frothing drive-by radio bloviators, the notion of legislating has come to be regarded with all the appreciation as something caught between a satanic cult and starring in The Jersey Shore. The craft of governance is left in the hands of people who have even less of an idea of what they are doing than Brett Favre contemplating the send video function on his cell phone.

Beginning in the early 1990s a number of states readily embraced term limits, perhaps eager to demonstrate to the populace that they too looked forward to the day when multibillion-dollar budgets and complex policy issues would be dealt with by elected officials more oblivious to efficient public administration than Hamid Karzai's ethics czar. But over the years, a few states — wary maybe of being likened to Florida — have done away with the eight is enough mantra.

To be sure, there is an argument to be made that longevity has its drawbacks — the arrogance of power, indifference to the people who selected you to represent their interests, the temptation of the greased palm.

Yet, these shortcomings notwithstanding, just how much better is the public interest served by installing legislators with precious little experience who must rely on the establishment bureaucracy and the "guidance" of lobbyists to navigate the legislative process?

Does any of this make any sense? Just when a legislator begins to grasp the nuances of crafting a bill, or for that matter developing some expertise in the subject matter of a committee assignment — he or she is shown the door. Freshmen lawmakers start running for House speaker before they have cast their first vote.

Most of us wouldn't hold a lawyer's, or a doctor's, or a plumber's experience against them to defend us in court, or diagnose an illness, or fix a leak. But woe to the politician for knowing how to be a politician.

In the pre-term limit years, figures such a the weird Johnnie Byrd, the indicted Ray Sansom, and Marco Rubio, who sponsored precious little legislation in his tenure, would have at best risen to become mid-level House factotums.

Instead they all eventually became speaker. How's that term limits thing working out for you?

Term limits put limit on leadership 01/03/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 6, 2011 1:48am]
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