The theory of term limits was that the policy would create citizen legislators by forcing lawmakers to return home to their business.
The fact, as documented in a new study from the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, is just the opposite. Politicians are just as a careerist as they were pre-term limits. The difference now is that they play musical chairs between offices.
So what good are term limits?
Yes, by ending the legislative careers (if not the political careers) of older generations of politicians, they probably hastened the arrival of a more diversity of the racial, ethnic and gender kind in the legislature.
But other than that, not much. Term limits largely have been positive if you want your legislators to be incompetent.
Sandy Muir, the longtime UC Berkeley political scientist (and a Republican), explained in his classic 1982 study of the California legislature that it takes 10 years to make a significant, successful change in the area of the law -- since smart changes are made in pieces.
It takes years for a new member to figure out how the legislature works to begin making changes. But Cailfornia legislators are limited to six years in the Assembly, and eight in the Senate.
The result: legislators -- whether they have the best of intentions or not -- never stick around long enough to make an impact or develop real proficiency in lawmaking.
So the legislature doesn't have a chance of success.
In a system without term limits, both bad and good legislators could stick around long enough to get things done.
If good outmanuevered the bad, you would have an effective legislature.