Is an experienced Illinois state representative a more effective state representative?

Matt DietrichReboot Illinois

May 22, 2014

How effective is your Illinois state representative?

And if your state rep has been in office for multiple terms, has he or she become more effective?

Thanks to the national legislative tracking platform, TrackBill, we’ve put together the graphic below that measures representatives’ performance in terms of number of bills they’ve passed over the past five Illinois General Assemblies, from the 93rd (2003-2004) to the current session.

Select a name from the drop-down menu and you’ll see the number of bills a legislator has passed during each session he or she has served, along with the total number of years served in the House.

The graphic above was created with data supplied by TrackBill.


If you were hoping that the numbers above would give you ammunition for or against term limits for legislators, you might have been disappointed. Obviously, there are more ways to measure a lawmaker’s worth than just by numbers of bills passed. Then again, the ability to sponsor and carry forward legislation is a good measure of a lawmaker’s leadership ability. It also can be indicative of a legislator’s willingness to compromise to get bills passed (and, conversely, to encourage compromise from others).

For a better analysis of term limits, we offer the following interview with Christopher Z. Mooney, director of the Institute for Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. It originally was posted here in January:

Christopher Z. Mooney is the director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. Mooney, the W. Russell Arrington Professor of State Politics in the department of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, has studied comparative U.S. state politics, with a special focus on state legislatures. He spoke with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about the potential pitfalls of term limits in state government.

Do we need state legislative term limits in state government to avoid controversies, such as requests for patronage jobs, which are the hallmarks of entrenched power?

My take on term-limits – or any sort of major institutional reform, really – is that you need to think broadly about its potential impact. It brings to mind the old saying, “Hard cases make bad law.” In other words, you don’t want to make a big change in government to fix an otherwise small problem. You also don’t want to make a big institutional change as a quick reaction to the latest controversy.

Term limits has been on the reform agenda of states for 35 years now. On the surface, people love the idea of it. It fits in with the old American idea of government being simple: The yeoman farmer puts down the plow in the fall, goes to the capitol, makes a few laws and then comes back home. Term limits has a lot of appeal as something that might do something to help root out the culture of corruption in politics. And in Illinois, you have to admit that recent history suggests that we need some help in this regard.

So that’s why term limits gets deployed as a political tool, because it’s so popular. It also can help to distinguish a candidate from his or her competition, if that candidate is an “outsider” candidate running against long-serving officeholders.

But just because a reform is politically popular doesn’t mean it’s ideal – or even workable. There are multiple implications for any state that adopts term limits. And it’s certainly not a silver bullet that’s going to solve the biggest problems that states – including Illinois – face.


So the appeal of term limits is the George Washington aspect of it? The idea that anyone can serve – but not too long – and then gracefully bow out and retire from public service?

Yes. In the U.S., we believe that virtually anyone can serve in public office, and there’s good logic to that. It’s very democratic to think of policymakers and policymaking as being representative of the people. The original colonists were very concerned with standing armies and the tyranny of the nobility – the very things that they rebelled against in the Revolutionary War. The feelings of suspicion of an ongoing political elite remain strong today.

However, the problem is that term limits isn’t a good way to achieve that. Term limits doesn’t give you a citizen state legislature. The thing that really drives whether a state has a citizen legislature or not is how big and complicated the state’s economy is. If you want to have a citizen legislature, live in New Hampshire. Live in Arkansas. Live in West Virginia. Those are states whose legislatures meet just a couple of months out of the year. But even in those states, legislators aren’t perfectly representative of the people. It’s still, largely, lawyers, insurance salespeople, real estate salespeople and others who have flexible schedules and some resources. So these people don’t need to make a living off of their salary as a representative. These states don’t need to have people year-round; there are just not as many complicated problems there.

Illinois is a big state. It’s as big as some significant countries. And even though we don’t have foreign policy to deal with, we do have a wide variety of public problems. So it’s not unreasonable, especially when we compare ourselves to other states our size – Pennsylvania, New York, California – to have a legislature that’s professional and well-staffed, where those who serve are paid more or less a full-time wage.

Texas is really the only example of a state that is roughly comparable to Illinois that has a citizen legislature. The legislature in Texas meets every other year, so the executive branch ends up dominating the state. That’s what would happen if we had a citizen legislature in Illinois; the governor would be a lot stronger.

And that’s probably the clearest implication of term limits that we know from research on the reform: They make the governor stronger. You might want a stronger governorship, but those who fear the power of a strong executive might not.

Click here to continue reading the entire interview.

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