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The myth of legislative term limits. Hint: They hurt more than help. | COMMENTARY

Sen. John Cade of Anne Arundel County speaks in the Senate chamber during a debate on corporal punishment in schools in this 1987 file photo.
Sen. John Cade of Anne Arundel County speaks in the Senate chamber during a debate on corporal punishment in schools in this 1987 file photo. (Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

Thirty-three years ago, I first encountered John A. “Jack” Cade and assumed he was a blowhard. Still a relatively young reporter for The Baltimore Sun, I’d been assigned to the newsroom team covering the Maryland General Assembly that year. My responsibility during my first 90-day session was to cover the state Senate, and often that meant spending countless hours in the Budget and Taxation Committee listening to Senator Cade grill witnesses mercilessly. He had retained the gruffness of his service in the U.S. Marine Corps and clearly enjoyed watching political appointees and top executive staff squirm under his questioning. He was large. He was intimidating. He was relentless. And he was a Republican who had gained the respect of his Democratic colleagues. No one on the committee tried to restrain Senator Cade (as if they could), but they paid close attention to what he had to say, often posing follow-up queries of their own.

After weeks of this, I eventually figured out what was going on. This wasn’t performance art. The senator wasn’t calling attention to himself. And although he served as minority leader, he wasn’t even being especially political. What really drove Jack was that he took the job of legislative oversight seriously. He wanted to make sure that taxpayer dollars were spent wisely. He not only wanted to see waste trimmed, he often threw his support behind worthy spending like expanding community colleges. And he was very, very good at this. Not because he was scary, although that probably helped. And surely not because he was a member of the GOP, which probably hurt given how Democrats outnumber Republicans by hefty margins in the Maryland legislature, then and now. No, here was his not-so-secret weapon: knowledge. Jack knew state government like the back of his hand. He was smart, he was studious, but most of all, he was experienced. By the time I met Senator Cade, he had already served three full terms in the legislature. He knew a lot.

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I raise my memory of Senator Cade, who died in 1996, because state lawmakers are once again considering legislation to rewrite the state constitution to impose term limits. Under House Bill 1031, someone could serve no more than three terms. It’s one of those political reforms that sounds mighty tempting (disrupt the status quo, allow for more fresh blood, end the tyranny of veteran politicos) but, in reality, can make matters worse. Had the bill been in effect a generation ago, Jack would not have been on B & T, replaced by some rookie still figuring out what “maintenance of effort” means (it relates to how public school funding is calculated, but you knew that, right?). The committee’s loss would have been a big gain for lobbyists and the influence of political parties who, in the absence of knowledge and experience of lawmakers, assert far greater control over the legislative process.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a place for term limits in the executive branch. Perhaps in the judiciary, too. But in the legislature, lawmakers face the enormous task of trying understand the sprawling and complex workings of state government. And unlike the governor, they don’t have tens of thousands of employees scurrying around doing their bidding. Ask anyone who has spent any time on State Circle in Annapolis: Newly elected lawmakers are like first-year high school students. Their education has just begun. Oh, they arrive with the ability to make speeches and file bills identical to those making the rounds of state legislatures around the country like, say, this one on term limits. Some served in local government or even worked as staff in the State House before, so they all aren’t necessarily neophytes. But Jack Cade-level knowledge? That’s rare. It ought to be prized. It’s why Democrats of his era made him a budget subcommittee chairman.

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There’s not much chance the term limit bill will pass this session. Last year, an identical bill never made it out of committee. Only two people even bothered to testify, and that includes the sponsor. Mostly, it’s legislation to allow its Republican co-sponsors to someday boast on their campaign literature that they proudly endorsed term limits. And a lot of voters will probably like that. Currently, 15 states impose some type of legislative term limits, most endorsed by hefty majorities through ballot initiatives.

That’s not especially surprising. Who was ever comforted by the words, “career politician?” Yet average voters never sit through endless committee hearings day after day bearing witness to the often dull legislative process. Perhaps their idea of what lawmakers do is shaped by Congress, where notable hearings aren’t about gathering information, they’re about showing off for the TV cameras. Or maybe the justifiably cynical are responding to the political die-hards, right and left, who despise Mitch McConnell (in office since 1984) or Nancy Pelosi (since 1987), but can’t seem to defeat either at the ballot box. When it comes to the legislative branch whether in Washington, D.C., or in most states, the voters back home have the final say. May a representative democracy always work like that. And may there always be a few Jack Cades to keep things honest.

Peter Jensen is an editorial writer at The Sun; he can be reached at pejensen@baltsun.com.

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