Why Political Science Doesn't Like Term Limits
Updated: Jan 11
Okay, we need to talk about term limits. Several candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination have now advocated for congressional term limits, as has President Trump. Political science has done a lot of work on term limits (spoiler: we don't like them), and this seems like an important time to weigh in on that.
Politically, there's some obvious payoff for a candidate to advocate for term limits. The reform remains astoundingly popular -- more than 80% favor a constitutional amendment limiting congressional terms, by some polls. And term limits for state legislatures have passed basically every time they've been put on a ballot. Interestingly, though, people don't seem all that happy with the results at the state level. People aren't convinced that politicians are less corrupt, have better ideas, or represent them better under term limits. Yet they still support extending term limits to Congress and other offices. Like many other Progressive reforms, term limits simply can't fail; they can only be failed.
But I wanted to take a moment to review just what scholars have learned about this topic. We're three decades into the term limit revolution at the state level. We have tons of evidence, pretty much all of which says that term limits aren't that great. But what precisely does it say is wrong with them?
One of the important effects of term limits is that they increase legislative polarization. As Michael Olson and Jon Rogowski report, term limits reduce the value of holding office and increase the influence of legislative parties. Legislatures become more ideologically polarized when term limits are in effect.
Term limits weaken legislatures (to the benefit of governors, parties, and lobbyists), increase polarization, and fail to achieve much of their good government goals.
Boris Shor and I did a study of the Nebraska Unicam that confirmed these effects. In that state, term limits gutted the legislature in the mid-2000s, leaving more than half the seats open when they went into effect. The parties responded rationally by recruiting people to run for those seats, and the people they recruited were far more ideologically motivated than those they were replacing. Even in an officially nonpartisan legislature, term limits sharply increased polarization.
Another important effect of term limits is to reduce legislators' expertise and capacity, as nicely described in this Brookings study. If you can only serve for six or eight years, chances are you don't get particularly good at some of the key tasks of legislating -- writing a budget, crafting large bipartisan bills, understanding the executive branch well enough to provide competent oversight, etc. -- before you get kicked out. Often legislative leaders have only a few years of experience before they take over the chamber.
This inexperience and lowered capacity tends to make legislatures weaker relative to the governor's office. Under term limits, California legislators, according to Bruce Cain and Thad Kousser, are less likely to screen bills or alter the governor's budget proposals. As they argue, "For a variety of reasons related to term limits, there is more room for fiscal irresponsibility in the Legislature now and less incentive, experience, and leadership to correct it." This weakness also means that legislators are more subject to the influence of lobbyists, who are not term limited and can develop a lifetime of expertise on a subject.
Some more findings suggest that term limits generally fail to achieve what their advocates promise. That is, they have not reduced campaign spending. They have not, as Susan Carroll and Krista Jenkins noted, increased the number of women serving in office. Nor have they increased the overall representativeness or diversity of legislatures.
Interestingly, term limits don't even seem to limit time in office all that much. Jordan Butcher and Aaron Kushner tracked the careers of thousands of state legislators over many years. What they found was that, on average, legislators in term-limited states stay in office longer; they're more likely to finish out the full time for which they're eligible.
The overall summary of the literature is that term limits weaken legislatures (to the benefit of governors, parties, and lobbyists), increase polarization, and fail to achieve much of their good government goals. As Kris Kanthak noted at a recent conference, the reason more political scientists aren't on line criticizing term limits is because our literature on this topic is about as close to a consensus as we get, and there just isn't much of a percentage in writing on a solved problem.
Probably the best one can say about term limits is that they really do limit terms. Unlike many political reforms, this one isn't something you can get around. Even very powerful, well-entrenched legislative leaders lose their seats because of it. The question is whether that makes the political system better as a result, and it's really hard to answer that in the affirmative.
If you're not interested in the results and you just simply don't like experienced politicians, well then yes, term limits may be just the thing you're looking for. But if good governance is something you care about, it's hard to make the case that term limits will get you there.
ADDENDA: Thanks to all of you who tweeted links to term limits research I failed to mention above. Just to post some highlights:
Term limits reduce voter turnout and fail to achieve most of what they promise. (Kimberly Nalder)
Termed-limited legislators put less effort into lawmaking in their final term. They sponsor fewer bills, do less work on committees, and skip more votes. (Andrew Hall and Alexander Fouirnaies)
In Michigan, term limits limited legislator expertise and reinforced the power of caucus leaders, regional cliques, and consulting networks. (Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson, Lyke Thompson, Charles D. Elder, Meg Comins, Richard C. Elling, and John Strate)
Redistricting is more partisan and more aggressive in term-limited states. (Brian Schaffner, Mike Wagner, and Jon Winburn)
In inexperienced legislatures, power tends to be concentrated in the hands of a few experts. (Nancy Burns, Laura Evans, Gerald Gamm, and Corrine McConnaughy.)
For legislators with long term career goals in politics, term limits makes them less interested in constituent service, but more interested in fundraising. (Julie VanDusky-Allen)