Legislative Term Limits: A Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come and Gone

by BURDETT A. LOOMIS, University of Kansas

Historically, citizens have not thought all that highly of legislatures, whether at the state or national level. They are contentious places, where debates frequently turn nasty and lawmakers seem obligated to interest groups that help fund their campaigns. Legislative work often proceeds at a snail's pace, even as major issues such as health care go unaddressed. Worst of all, many citizens view members of Congress and state legislators as unresponsive to their constituents, largely because they can go without a serious electoral challenge for years, even decades.

In the 1980s, various groups and politicians pressed for an overarching solution to the alleged problem of unresponsive legislators: term limits. That is, lawmakers would be allowed to serve only a limited number of terms. Eighteen states currently limit their state lawmakers to service of between six and twelve years; the U. S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional attempts by the states to limit the terms of members of Congress.

To be fair, term limits can infuse legislatures with "new blood," and more citizens do serve in office under term-limit restrictions. Perhaps more importantly, veteran committee chairs are less likely to dominate the process, and lawmakers do not develop cozy, long-term relationships with lobbyists. Still, these are modest benefits at best, in comparison to the costs of implementing this simplistic "fix."

So, what's wrong with term limits? First, term limits take the power to choose one's representative out of the hands of the voters. If we want to vote an incumbent out of office—in either a primary or general election—we can. This is the most profound and democratic form of limiting legislative tenure. Second, term limits weaken the legislative branch, at the expense of further empowering the executive and interest groups. Although most governors and the president are term-limited, the concentration of power within the executive allows them tremendous leverage in relations with the legislature. Lobbyists have no restrictions on their length of service. Thus, they can benefit from the expertise and contacts that they accumulate over time. Indeed, many lobbyists begin their careers in the legislature; ironically, they are allowed to place their talents at the disposal of private interests, but not the public. Third, term limits weaken legislators within their own institution. Inexperienced legislators must chair committees and serve as party leaders, almost before they learn where the capitol's rest rooms are located. To whom do they turn, if not to outsiders like lobbyists? They turn to professional staff members of the legislature, who have often accumulated decades of legislative service.

Fourth, term limits encourage legislators to focus on their next job, not their present one. In California, state representatives can serve for just three two-year terms, state senators for two four-year terms. They can see the end of their legislative careers almost before they are seated for the first time. So, what do they do? They look ahead, toward another office, or to a position as a lobbyist. By definition, they cannot build a career in the legislature, but this does not prevent them from making plans for a career that will move them from one job to another. What incentives do they have to serve their current constituents? Rather, their future constituents are more important to them

Finally, term limits deplete the legislative talent pool. This occurs in at least two ways. Most obviously, experienced legislators are forced out, just when they understand best how to work within an inherently inefficient body. Perhaps more profoundly, however, term limits may well not even accomplish their primary goal: to encourage talented newcomers to serve in the legislature. Although there are more opportunities to win legislative office under term limits, the value of the office may decline to a point that talented candidates simply avoid the rigors of a contemporary campaign that emphasizes fund-raising and a great deal of pubic exposure for one's family.

In short, term limits address a relatively modest "problem" (relatively low turnover) with a radical solution that weakens the institution of the legislature just when we should encourage thoughtful deliberation by veteran lawmakers who understand how representative democracy works.