Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Reflections on National Term Limits Day

By Christopher Cooper

February 27 was National Term Limits day. While it didn’t exactly sweep the nation, politicians and citizens alike posted on Twitter (#TermLimitsDay), placed signs in their yard, and otherwise let it be known that they thought politicians’ terms should be limited. Heck, there’s even a podcast devoted to the movement.


Surveys that ask about the issue consistently find that term limits are popular with the public. For example, a McLaughlin and Associates survey found that 82% of the public supports term limits. A 2013 GallupPoll came to a similar conclusion—75% of the people surveyed supported term limits for members of the US House and Senate. Various state polls also indicate strong support for term limits. The polling data are clear: people like term limits.


It's easy to understand why term limits are so popular: trust in government is at an all-time low, people don’t like Congress, they don’t like their state legislature, they don’t like politicians in general, and yet incumbents win the vast majority of the time. So, why don’t we just “throw the bums out” and start over every few years?


The problem is that term limits don’t solve the problems they were meant to solve. They introduce new ones. 

The states have been tinkering with legislative term limits for years. 15 states currently have term limits for their state legislatures: Maine, California, Colorado, Arkansas, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, South Dakota, Montana, Arizona, Missouri, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Louisiana and Nevada. By comparing various outcomes before and after term limits in these states, Political Scientists have learned a great deal about the effects of term limits. By and large, the news is not positive for term limit advocates.


Part of the problem rests on the decline in legislative expertise that follows the implementation of term limits. When experienced politicians are relieved on their duties, they are replaced by new legislators who may have trouble finding the copier or figuring out where the good coffee is, much less understanding the intricacies of health care policy, the pros and cons of school choice or whether energy deregulation produces better outcomes.

To make matters worse, when legislators lack information, there is a group that is always ready to provide interested information to legislators--lobbyists. According to Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson and Lyke Thompson, after term limits were implemented in Michigan, "the ties between lobbyists and legislators" were closer than they were before. At the same time, state senators after term limits were less likely to seek advice and information from local officials. In their words, "Without this street-level perspective legislators are deprived of information about how policies affect day-to-day life in their local communities. This has potentially profound effects for the state and its citizens."

But what about the characteristics of the legislators themselves? One of the promises of term limits was that they might relieve us of the demographic biases that pervade our electoral system. Unfortunately, that promise was unrealized. Term limited legislatures are no more diverse in terms of race, gender, or economic class than non-term limited legislatures. Further, term limits do not result in significantly younger legislators. 


Implementing term limits does succeed in throwing the bums out, but they are only replaced by a different group of bums who look awfully similar to the ones who were just relieved of their duties. 

To add insult to injury, Sarbaugh-Thompson and Thompson find that the "biggest difference between the new (pre-term limit) and old (post-term limit) breeds of legislator is that the post-term limits breed is vastly more politically ambitious than their predecessors" (p. 287).  If you elect people with the guarantee that they will be fired in a few years, they will enter office with an exit plan already in place. In politics, that exit plan means they will be angling for higher office immediately. 

In terms of policy-making, the evidence also lines up in opposition to term limits. Term limited legislatures pass policies that are less reflective of public opinion than non-term limited legislatures. In addition, whereas committees provide a measure of expertise and specialization in non-term limited states, that expertise and domain-knowledge is diminished when legislators are term-limited.


Term limits is an idea that briefs well. Who wouldn't jump at the opportunity to replace the current crop of legislators with one that is more diverse, considers more perspectives, and isn't motivated by re-election? The problem is that while term limits do indeed increase turnover, there is no mechanism to ensure that the new crop of legislators will be more other-regarding, representative, or responsible than the ones who just left.


Ultimately, elections remain the best way we have to hold our politicians accountable. We should strengthen the electoral connection, rather than weaken it by mandating term limits.


Chris Cooper is the Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University. He tweets at @chriscooperwcu.