Many voters and reformers support the idea of term limits for elected officials. Whether or not that is a good idea (the evidence is mixed), there is a form of term limits that would clearly benefit the public. Legislators should be term limited in leadership positions within their legislative chamber. In particular, no legislator should be allowed to serve more than two consecutive sessions as chairman of the same legislative committee.
In the Washington State House and Senate, committee chairmen literally set the agenda. They decide what bills get a hearing and what ideas never see the light of day. They can prevent popular measures from moving forward, and stymie debates on important topics. The power of a committee chairman is most effective in defense of the status quo, which makes controlling these positions a top priority for powerful special interests.
Consider this paragraph from yesterday’s Washington State Wire report on the reorganization of the State Senate.
This year the Washington Education Association spent more than $220,000 to ensure longtime ally Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, was re-elected, thus ensuring that she would retain her chairmanship of the Senate Education Committee. But under a bipartisan coalition, there is a strong chance she would lose it – and WEA’s $220,000 would have been spent without purpose.
With their chairman in place, the WEA can sit on the sidelines like a Roman emperor at a gladiatorial contest. Flick the thumb down and the bill dies.
In fact, it was Chairman McAuliffe’s totalitarianismthat helped lead to last year’s rebellion by moderate Senate Democrats. Sen. McAuliffe refused to allow a bill that had majority support to be heard. Now, the sponsor of that bill, Sen. Rodney Tom (D-Bellevue), may become the next Senate Majority Leader if he and Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-Potlatch) vote with Republicans to change Senate rules and allow for bi-partisan control.
Committee chairmen no only control the agenda and have power to spike even popular bills to satisfy their biggest campaign donors. They also can decide whether committees will have meaningful debates and allow challenging testimony. And they have the power to use their committee to exercise effective oversight of the state’s executive branch, or not.
The Senate can change its own rules after each election. It would be a bold and positive statement if Senators decide in January to limit members from serving more than four years in any particular chairmanship. The House should do the same.
Limiting the power of committee chairmen would provide greater openness to new ideas and less protection for the status quo and its special interests.