Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo came to the office in 2009 as a champion of ethics reform — and one of his first actions was to reinstate the eight-year term limit for the speakership. What a difference six years makes. According to the Globe’s Jim O’Sullivan, DeLeo is seeking to scrap the term limit for his position. It’s a bad move, and one that members of the House should stop when they take up the issue, as they are expected to today.
Term limits aren’t always appropriate. Congressional offices and legislators don’t have them, and for good reason — people should have the option of voting in a representative or official for as long as that person is able to serve. But that shouldn’t extend to leadership positions in the House or the Senate, who are chosen by a vote of those bodies.
The reason is that leaders in the Legislature hold tremendous power in their respective chambers. The speaker of the House, for example, appoints the leadership team and all the committee chairs, allowing him to tightly control the legislative agenda. While experience in the office is important in ensuring the smooth operation of government, keeping the same people in positions of power can strangle good ideas that percolate up from rank and file lawmakers. No one said it better than DeLeo himself, when he was pushing to reinstate the rule. “It’s important in a position such as speaker for there to be an opportunity for fresh ideas, and the only way you can ensure that is to put term limits on the speaker,” he told the Globe in 2009.
Just as important, allowing one person to monopolize the speakership can have a corrupting influence on government. Just ask the people of New York. Sheldon Silver, who had served as speaker of the New York State Assembly since 1994, resigned this week after being arrested and charged with taking millions of dollars in bribes disguised as legal fees. Closer to home, former Massachusetts speaker Thomas Finneran, who held that post for more than eight years, resigned from the post in 2004 amid an investigation for federal obstruction of justice charges after trying to conceal his involvement in House redistricting. He pled guilty to those charges in 2007. And it was Finneran who pushed hard to remove the term limit in 2001.
Under current rules, DeLeo would have to resign his post as speaker — but not his seat in the Legislature — in 2017, when his eight-year term runs out. The House should vote to keep it that way. Residents of Massachusetts deserve a state government that is responsive to new ideas. Allowing a select few lawmakers to cement themselves into positions of power indefinitely is no way to do that.