Confronting Unlimited Government: Lessons from the Term Limits Movement

Report Political Process

Confronting Unlimited Government: Lessons from the Term Limits Movement

August 31, 2009 5 min read Download Report
H. Abbie Erler
Senior Policy Analyst on International Economics

Executive Summary

Many of the Founders advocated term limits and rotation in office in the belief that those in power would be more likely to abuse their authority the more accustomed they grew to exercising it. However, at least at the federal level, the Framers of the Constitution rejected the idea of term limits as detrimental to the stability of republican government.

  • They had more faith in the character of the representatives that would be chosen by the people, and term limits would preclude the choice of the best people for office.
  • They believed that the requirement to stand for reelection was one of the primary means of keeping elected officials honest and that term limits would remove that constraint.
  • They thought that frequent elections and other institutional checks and balances were more effective than term limits in preventing arbitrary and tyrannical government power.

In the early Republic, the debate over term limits continued. Many states asked for a term-limits amendment in the Bill of Rights. This amendment, however, was not passed by Congress.

In the 19th century, before the rise of direct primaries, rotation in office was enforced not by explicit term limits, but by political parties. Because of their control over candidates, parties guaranteed rotation in office by choosing from among several possible nominees rather than always nominating the same candidate.

However, between 1890 and 1910, the nature of legislative service began to change with the rise of congressional careerism. This change was a result of three factors:

  • As parties became more realigned on a regional basis, there was less electoral competition. This reduced turnover in office and allowed some parties to hold the same seats for many decades.
  • Service in Congress became a desirable career, and the stigma of demagoguery and actively campaigning and seeking office diminished.
  • Electoral reforms during the early 20th century reduced the influence of parties over candidates. Members of Congress began to establish personal connections directly with constituents, fostering a rise of credit-claiming and direct service to constituents.

The modern term-limits movement was a response to the growing careerism and professionalization among Members of Congress. Although it was not unified in terms of philosophy, the movement was designed to eliminate two problems of modern government: the professionalization of politics and unlimited government spending. By fostering a new ruling class of citizen legislators who would represent the public rather than organized interests, term limits would be the cure for many of modern society's ills.

The term-limits movement was very successful in passing measures at the state level. Dozens of states passed term-limits measures beginning in the early 1990s. Some of these measures were imposed on state legislatures; others imposed term limits on delegates to Congress.

By 1995, 23 states had adopted term limits for their Members of Congress, but in U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, the Supreme Court struck down these laws, arguing that they added additional qualifications for service in the House of Representatives that were contrary to Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. This shifted the strategy of the movement from laws passed by state legislatures to Congress and a potential constitutional amendment.

Because many in both parties opposed term limits, the push for a constitutional amendment proved futile, but the measures imposing term limits on state legislatures remained in effect. We can therefore judge the results of term limits by how they have operated in practice at the state level to:

  • Eliminate careerism and facilitate the election of citizen legislators who would represent the average citizen rather than special interests;
  • Reduce state spending by removing the incentives to deliver benefits and pork-barrel projects to constituents in order to be reelected; and
  • Promote deliberation by helping to insulate representatives from public opinion.

In at least one respect, term limits did achieve their purpose: They reduced the number of years that state legislators may serve in office. Average tenure levels in state legislatures have plummeted, and this has led to greater turnover. However, the evidence shows that term limits have also had many unintended deleterious consequences.

First, term limits promote progressive ambition and careerism to a greater degree than existed before legislators were term-limited. This is because most state legislators plan to run for another office after they are term-limited and use their limited time in office to establish their credentials. Moreover, amateur politicians do not appear to have filled the void vacated by career politicians. Rather, career politicians at the local and municipal levels are moving up into state legislatures. Ultimately, term limits increased careerism by vacating more seats, thus affording greater opportunities for officeholders to advance while at the same time eliminating the opportunity costs of running since they no longer had to worry about retaining their current office while running for a new one.

Second, and most disappointingly for supporters of term limits, there is little evidence that term limits lowered state government spending. The evidence shows that expenditures are, on average, 1.9 percent higher in states with term limits than in states without term limits.

Third, term limits have not encouraged deliberation; rather, legislatures under term limits tend to be characterized by disorganization and disarray as inexperienced lawmakers try to navigate the policymaking process. Term limits have shortened the time horizons of lawmakers. They accelerate the pace of lawmaking as officeholders seek to use their reduced time to prepare for the next office as much as possible. They have discouraged a long-term approach to legislation, making legislators concerned only about the short-term effects of policies. Also, term limits have weakened the influence of party leaders and committee chairmen over policy, preventing legislatures from acting according to a coherent and unified plan. Finally, term limits have reduced civility in state legislatures, as there is little time for members to build the collegial relationships that promote civil discourse.

It is not likely that many more states will enact term limits. Term limits are already present in the states that allow voter initiatives for constitutional reforms. In other states, legislators would have to impose term limits on themselves. Moreover, recent efforts to repeal term-limits laws where they exist have been largely unsuccessful. The Supreme Court's ruling against the constitutionality of term limits in U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton makes it even more unlikely that term limits will be imposed on Members of Congress.

Ultimately, while the term-limits movement was very successful both in reducing the length of time that state legislators serve in office and in rallying the public against runaway government spending and other ills that plague modern government, it did not accomplish its broader political goals of reducing spending and restoring deliberation. The reason for this failure is that runaway spending and the lack of deliberation are only symptoms of a deeper, systemic problem: the rise of the modern bureaucracy and expansion of the administrative state.

The massive expansion of government in the early 20th century and the establishment of bureaucracies in which scientific experts make policy concerning complex issues fostered careerism among Members of Congress. More power made congressional offices more attractive, and the difficulty of dealing with bureaucratic experts required legislators to have more experience to be successful. At the same time, the party system that allowed for greater rotation in office was undermined. These developments created the problem that the term-limits movement confronted.

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H. Abbie Erler

Senior Policy Analyst on International Economics