Kathryn A. DePalo: Florida’s term limits just aren’t working

As part of an op-ed series, FIU News shares the expertise and diverse perspectives of members of the university community. In this piece, Kathryn A. DePalo, a senior instructor in the Department of Politics and International Relations, addresses how Florida’s term limits have weakened the legislative branch. This article was originally published in the Orlando Sentinel on July 12.
Kathryn DePalo, senior instructor in the Department of Politics and International Relations

Kathryn A. DePalo, senior instructor in the Department of Politics and International Relations

By Kathryn A. DePalo

The behavior of the Florida House of Representatives during the regular session is a stunning example of the failure of term limits. In 2000, when term limits took effect, they removed almost half the members of the House and more than 25 percent of the Senate in just one election year. Instead of promoting electoral competition, incumbents have procured a new advantage and effectively own their seats until their eight years are up or they decide to vacate early.

Combined with gerrymandered districts so heavily in favor of one political party, legislators do not fear repercussions at the ballot box.

“Citizen” legislators are not pouring into the Capitol as proponents of term limits had hoped. Legislators are more politically ambitious in the post-term-limits era, with many entering office with previous elective experience, and continuing to run for both higher and local offices upon their exit. Political ambition and prospects for their political future are the most prevalent factors in policy decisions today. Short-term thinking abounds in Tallahassee.

The most devastating effect of term limits has been to severely weaken the legislative branch. Power is now solely concentrated in those few individuals at the apex of the leadership hierarchy in each chamber. Individual members possess very little power to effect change if the speaker of the House is adamantly opposed. Abbreviated tenures are responsible for a lack of institutional memory and procedural knowledge among legislators. Lobbyists, in particular, are filling that void. Ironically, the main goal of the term-limits movement was to weaken the influence of lobbyists and special interests. Now, they are more powerful than ever.

With term limits, the Senate tends to have an advantage because most members come from the House and bring legislative experience with them. That is what we saw play out when the House unconstitutionally adjourned during the regular legislative session. These kinds of actions will continue with term limits in place.

Term limits, promoted as a way to make legislators more responsive to constituent needs, have failed spectacularly in the Sunshine State.