The debate over who will represent the will of the people in a democracy can be traced back to the origins of democratic government itself, and the concept of limiting terms has been an important part of that debate. Thomas Jefferson, a man whose political ideals helped shape our country, argued that term limits “prevent every danger which might arise to American freedom by continuing too long in office.”1 Indeed, the founders and framers of our country felt that term limits were such a necessary limitation to public office that they included them in the Articles of Confederation, and felt that their omission from the Constitution was “most highly and dangerously oligarchic.”2 The debate over term limits continues to this day and, in a number of states, these limits have been successfully implemented. Of course, considerable work remains before legislative term limits are implemented widely across the country. The arguments for and against term limits are numerous, yet ultimately the issue boils down to the ideal to which we wish to hold our government: do we want our fellow common citizens to represent us as opposed to entrenched, elite oligarchs? Do we want a government conducted by legislators more invested in the well-being of their constituents and districts than in their own career or moneyed interests? If so, then limiting the tenure of our legislators is the right choice; like the commonly used saying goes, tenure corrupts, indefinite tenure corrupts absolutely.
Though term limits are hardly a recent phenomena, the movement for them has appeared in more recent times. In the late 1980s, a growing movement of reformers sought to institute term limits across the country in state legislatures, pushed largely by the growing rate of incumbency found in state legislatures. In the 1960s and 1970s, the average state legislature experienced the turnover of 1/3rd of its members every two years. During the 1980s, this turnover declined considerably, so that by 1988 the average turnover had fallen to only 16 percent of state legislatures3. In that decade, over 99 percent of unindicted congressional and state legislative incumbents won their re-election4. The term-limit movement saw successes beginning in the early 1990s, when Colorado, California, and Oklahoma instituted limitations on their legislators. Seventeen states have since followed: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming.
Legislative term limits can presently be found in 15 states. In all, 21 states have passed term limits for legislators, though in Idaho, Massachusetts, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming, those limits have either been repealed by the legislature or ruled unconstitutional in court. The specific limitations these term limits enforce on legislatures vary from state to state, with some significantly more restrictive than others. Legislative term limits in 9 states are consecutive; once a state legislator has served the maximum number of terms in office, they can run for office in the state’s other legislative chamber. After a defined period of time, that legislator may again run for office in the chamber they were termed-out. In 6 states the limits are lifetime; once a legislator has served the maximum allowable number of terms in a legislative chamber, they may never again run or hold office in that chamber. 5
The arguments for term limits are numerous, and can be equally applied to offices ranging from the local to the national level. They are mostly framed around a major complaint about our modern money-infused, partisan, ‘elite’ political system: politics has become a career, and our politicians are now more concerned about pursuing their own career interests than the needs and interests of those they are supposed to represent. Indeed, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, in a study of Wisconsin citizens in 2009, found that only 10% of individuals polled said they thought state elected officials represent the interests of voters. By contrast, 85% said that elected officials only care of “their own interests” or “special interests.”6 This sentiment is widespread across the country; in the 23 states where attempts to enact term limits have taken place, 21 of these attempts succeeded. More than 60 statewide votes on term limits have occurred between 1990 and 2004, and they have mostly resulted in an overwhelming ‘yes’ vote with wide margins of victory. 7 If anything, this voter support has demonstrated that citizens recognize the issues that come with unlimited tenure in office, and are seeking change.
One of the strongest arguments for term limits is how they impact the influence of incumbency and money in politics. 8 In the modern American political arena, money is a major factor determining who will win an election. Incumbents have the benefit of the profits they made while in power, as well as the backing of their party, contributing organizations, and special interests, to help get them reelected. Due to this, most middle-class Americans, who better understand the problems facing the average citizen, are highly unlikely to win against a wealthy incumbent. By instituting term limits, the profitable relationships between long-seated members of the legislature and special interest groups will be less influential when determining elections and, when legislators are limited out of office, the less qualified, less wealthy candidates will be given a real opportunity to win elections. Incumbent victory is further reinforced by a number of other factors benefiting incumbents. When candidates first win, the reputation they gain as a “winner” is something they can trade on in future elections. The name recognition incumbents gain merely by representing their constituents for the first two or four years is also helpful. When incumbents run for reelection, they will be free to do all of the campaigning they want while collecting a state paycheck and benefits; this is a benefit which is not afforded to the competitor, who very often must quit their job in order to run. 9 Again, by instituting term limits, these factors which contribute to the enormous retention rate of incumbents and which make it hard for common citizens to run will be negligible, because many incumbents will be forced out of office.
Another powerful argument in favor of term limits is the way limits impact the nature of legislation coming out of the legislature. Politicians in a system where terms are unlimited are always concerned about their reelection, they will produce and vote on legislation which will improve their reelection chances. This has a number of serious consequences. Legislators will avoid making risky political decisions or take unpopular, but correct, positions because they are worried about losing votes. As a result, they are more focused on procuring pork for their district and making politically-convenient short term decisions than they are about making the tough, unpopular, long-term decisions which are ultimately more important for the well being of the state. 10 Without an election looming over them, legislators would be able to make these tough, politically-unpopular choices. Furthermore, the pressure of reelection contributes to paralyzing partisanship, resulting in legislative gridlock. As the American body politic continues to become more partisan, the legislators in office must ‘fall in line’ in order to secure votes and thus reelection; with term limits instituted, legislators would be able to vote more on principle than on the party platform11, thereby providing legislation which makes a more positive difference for their state and which reduces the gridlock in their legislature.
A central issue which term limits hope to fix is that citizen legislators have disappeared in modern American politics. Members of our legislatures have converted the privilege of representing the American people into a lifelong profession. This professionalization of politics is incompatible with the essence of good representative government. The culture of professionalism disconnects and distances the professional politician from those whom they intend to serve; by its very nature, professionalism entails a set of role relationships between experts and clients in which the professional is an expert who offers knowledge and judgment to clients. Representative government, however, should be characterized by the close connection that must exist between the representative and the represented and aspires to minimize, rather than expand, the distance between the two. Simply put, professional politicians, who have spent careers in a ‘culture of ruling’ and who have become disconnected from the daily lives and struggles of the average American, do not understand the plight, the concerns, the needs, and the wants of their constituents. If term limits are instituted and these career politicians are forced out of office, the possibility for ‘average American’ citizen legislators to join the ranks of the legislature increases, and with it will increase the amount of sensible, responsible policy which resonates strongly with the common American.
The opponents of term limits often raise a number of concerns about how limits will detrimentally affect democracy and the operations of the legislature. These arguments serve to draw the discussion about term limits away from the ideals which limits seek to institute, and rather focuses it on possible difficulties which term limits might cause. Yet these opposing arguments fall short for a number of reasons. Though term limits might detrimentally affect some operations in the legislature, there is a possibility for reform which will allow for their use while mitigating possible damage. The other arguments against term limits fail to address the primary reason why limits are so important, which is that legislating has now become a career and as a result is no longer responsive to the average citizen.
Perhaps one of the most commonly used arguments against term limits is that long-term politicians with legislative knowledge will be limited-out of office, and thus the legislature will lose valuable experience. It is true that experience will be lost; this is an unfortunate consequence of limiting people out of office. Yet the notion that this experience alone is what keeps the legislature running is absurd, as is the argument that non-experienced legislatures would be incapable of effectively doing their job. 12 It is rather the dedication of the legislator to their constituency and their determination to the bettering of their district which produces effective, efficient, and good policy. Problematically, the public continues to elect incumbents because of name recognition rather than a proven track record or a demonstration of experience. There is very likely someone else who is qualified and capable enough to take over the incumbent’s office and do the job just as effectively. This argument against term limits also discounts the reality that, during periods of political sweeps or following major redistricting, many legislators have been voted out of office and replaced with inexperienced newcomers. The legislatures which experienced these changes in office holders did not suffer drastically. 13
Another commonly raised issue with term limits is that they are anti-democratic, for people should be allowed to chose whoever they want to hold office. By limiting terms, the argument goes, certain people who the public wants to elect will be prohibited from doing so; this constitutes a violation of the ‘ideals’ of democracy. Yet this argument too has a number of holes. First, the American political system is already constrained by a number of limitations which are, according to this argument, anti-democratic. These include minimum-age requirements, citizenship requirements, and, in the case of the presidency, a two-term limit. If legislative term limits are so egregious a violation of democracy, then its opponents should rally against these limitations, too. Yet even this aside, there is a greater issue with this argument. There exists a particular paradox in the voting habits of the American electorate which demonstrates that this argument has faults. While, as has been demonstrated, the American public overwhelmingly supports limiting the amount of terms legislators can serve, it also reelects incumbents at an overwhelming rate. If anything, this further demonstrates and reinforces the fact that modern American political system is dysfunctional, and heavily favors incumbents. The influence of outside factors contributing to an incumbent’s reelection disrupts and corrupts the democracy which term limits hope to reestablish.
Still, the arguments against term limits which are framed around possible disruptions to legislation efficiency and effectiveness do have merit, and their existence serve as a hamper for the movement to institute legislative term limits. Due to this, and because state legislatures should be as effective and efficient as possible to ensure good public policy, a number of reforms have been developed to mitigate the negative impacts of term limits on the legislature. With these reforms in place, there is no reason why term limits should be opposed; they minimize the damage caused by term limits while keeping the ideals which term limits seek intact. Indeed, in a number of states these reforms have already taken place, thereby helping ensure that the legislatures of these states are as productive and effective as possible. 14 In response to the concern about the lack of experience incoming legislators will have, a number of reforms have been suggested and implemented: improve new member orientation and ongoing training programs, offer mentoring programs between experienced and inexperienced legislators, and compile directories of legislative rules and traditions. 15 Such programs will help new legislators learn the complexities of legislating quickly, so that they become quickly involved in the process. In order to deal with problems with the structure of leadership, which invariably will become weakened if legislative leaders are limited out of office, term-limited legislatures can develop new leadership ladders and patterns of transition, select leaders earlier in the session, prepare prospective leaders, and build leadership relationships with members quickly. 16 These reforms have been seen to provide some leadership stability for the legislative system, allow prospective leaders to develop skills early before they move into leadership positions, and allows inexperienced legislators to follow the leaders with who they will quickly establish relationships. Term-limited legislatures find the essential responsibility of overseeing the executive branch to be more difficult due to the constant turnover and reduced levels of legislative experience. In order to better control policy, budgets, and the executive branch whilst having term limits, legislatures can offer training on key policy areas and the budget process, improve legislative oversight efforts, increase attention to issues of institutional maintenance by leaders, and consolidate the budget bargaining powers in top legislative leaders. 17 By instituting these reforms, legislatures which have enacted term-limits can be productive, effective, efficient bodies, and the legislators who are working within a term-limited system will still be able to function the same as legislators who are working in a system without term limits. These reforms demonstrate that the problems which term limits bring are not unsolvable, and thus instituting term limits will not present a grave enough danger to legislative function to make them not worth it.
Instituting term limits on our state legislatures is a smart and necessary reform. Term-limits will bring back the ideal of government which our country espouses, a government of the people, by the people, for the people The professionalization of politics has created a class of politicians who are more concerned about reelection and about special interest money than they are about the constituents they represent. This in turn has created poor, out-of-touch policy and leadership. The opponents of term limits oppose them with various arguments, yet these arguments fail to address this fundamental problem in our political system. The damage they claim term limits will cause to the legislative process can be mitigated by instituting a series of reforms to strengthen the legislature and ensure that its new members are acquainted with legislative procedures. Knowing this, there is no good reason to oppose term limits; indeed, the American public recognizes this, as can be seen by their overwhelming support for such limits. It is time the legislators of our states recognize that the American people want change, and want to take back control of their representative institutions. The right way to do this is through term limits.
1. Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson: Correspondence 1771 – 1779 (New York: Cosimo, 2009), 220-221.
2. Mason in Jonathan Eliot, ed., The Debates in the Several State Conventions on Adoption of the Federal Constitution, 5 vols. (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1836), 485.
3. Albert J. Nelson, Emerging Influentials in State Legislatures (New York: Praeger, 1991), 78-81.
4. Patrick Basham, “Term Limits: A Reform that Works”, Our Generation, http://ourgeneration.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/term-limits.pdf. Accessed 1 May, 2013.
5. States Legislatures with Term Limits, www.ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/State_legislatures_with_term_limits. Accessed 1 May, 2013
6. Christian Schneider, The Case for Term Limits in Wisconsin, WRPI, http://www.wpri.org/Reports/Volume22/Vol22No6/Vol22No6.html. Accessed 1 May, 2013
7. Jeffiner Bowser, Keon Chi, and Thomas Little, Coping with Term Limits, A Practice Guide, National Conference of State Legislatures, http://www.gongwer.com/public/termlimits.pdf, 19-25. Accessed 1 May 2013
8. Arguments for Term Limits, Restart Congress, http://restartcongress.org/revolution/arguments-for-term-limits. Accessed 1 May 2013
9. Christian Schneider, The Case for Term Limits in Wisconsin, WRPI, http://www.wpri.org/Reports/Volume22/Vol22No6/Vol22No6.html. Accessed 1 May, 2013
10. John M. Carey, Richard G. Niemi and Lynda W. Powell, The Effects of Term Limits on State Legislatures, Legislative Studies Quarterly , Vol. 23, No. 2 (May, 1998), pp. 271-300. Accessed 1 May, 2013, http://www.jstor.org/stable/440283.
11. Arguments for Term Limits, Restart Congress, http://restartcongress.org/revolution/arguments-for-term-limits. Accessed 1 May 2013
12 Edward H Crane and Roger Pilon, The Politics and Law of Term Limits, (Washington D.C.: Cato Institute, 1994), 75-90
14. Jeffiner Bowser, Keon Chi, and Thomas Little, Coping with Term Limits, A Practice Guide, National Conference of State Legislatures, http://www.gongwer.com/public/termlimits.pdf, 19-25. Accessed 1 May 2013