Not in terms of the evidence, which shows such limits lead to weaker legislatures, stronger governors
By CHRISTOPHER Z. MOONEY
State legislative term limits has been one of the most popular American government innovations in a century. Since 1990, dozens of states and localities across the country have adopted this reform. While some state supreme courts ruled the reform violated their states’ constitutions, today, in 15 states, lawmakers may only serve a limited number of terms. It is very rare when a referendum or initiative in favor of term limits fails, showing that this reform taps directly into the long-standing and deep-seated distrust Americans have of politics and politicians.
But just because something is popular doesn’t make it a good idea. For example, polls consistently show that people want to cut taxes while spending more on government services. Illinois policymakers have been pursuing that misguided budgeting approach for at least 20 years, leading the state to be to the nation’s biggest budgetary basket case.
When considering such a fundamental reform as term limits, we should look at the evidence of its potential impact. What do we know will happen if term limits are adopted? Answering this question was a challenge in the early term limits debate simply because no data existed. No legislatures in the U.S., and precious few around the world had experience with legislative term limits before the 1990s. One early study was so desperate for evidence that it tried to find some clues from one of the few legislatures that had term limits — in Costa Rica! But that is not the case today. We have had two decades of experience in the states now, and we should use this information when making our term limits choices.
In the 2000s, I was part of a major research effort by a dozen political scientists and teams of staff at the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Council of State Governments. We undertook a rigorous and multipronged approach to addressing the question, “What impacts do term limits have?” In addition, many other political scientists and economists have been studying this question for some time. So, let’s see what we know now.
The best way to approach these findings is to see how they support (or not) the arguments of term limits advocates and opponents. Who was right, and who was wrong?
Term limits advocates argue that the reform will have several good impacts. First, they claim that term limits would yield more “citizen legislators,” those who serve for a few years, bringing some “common sense” and “real-world experience” to state government. Research shows us that this is not true. Term-limited legislators have equivalent political experience and run for other offices at the same rate as those not serving under term limits. There is increased “churning” with term limits, as local officials and state lawmakers move around more from office to office, but they are no less politically experienced or ambitious. Term limits were also supposed to diversify the legislature. But that didn’t happen either. Term-limited lawmakers are not noticeably different in occupational profile, age, gender or race.
Advocates also claim that term limits will yield more electoral competition and less campaign spending. Again, the data show this is not true. On average, these don’t change with term limits, although their patterns shift somewhat. A term-limited incumbent is almost never challenged for re-election. Rather, people interested in the job merely wait for his/her final term, at which point there is a colossal scrum for that open seat. Whoever wins the seat then gets a pass until his/her limit is reached.
Finally, term limits proponents say the reform will increase legislator turnover, in particular ousting long-serving legislative leaders. This is certainly true. By definition, no lawmaker will serve longer than the limit, so no leader can accumulate the level of seniority we see now in the Illinois General Assembly. But given current levels of turnover in ILGA, the percentage of freshmen in each chamber would likely increase, but not dramatically.
On the other hand, term limits opponents have mainly argued that the reform would weaken the legislative branch. One of the central principles of American government is the importance of a balance of power between the three branches. Such a balance reduces the opportunity for tyranny and rash policy. The 20th century saw a series of reforms that increased the power of the governor vis a vis the legislature, including here in Illinois. Thus, opponents argue that term limits weaken an already feeble legislative branch in several ways. But unlike term limits advocates’ arguments, these have largely been supported by empirical research.
For one thing, research shows that term limits strip legislatures of experience and policy knowledge, due to less legislative seniority and less legislator time being devoted to policy making. Public policy is complex, so lawmakers’ effectiveness increases with experience, at least somewhat. So, less time in the legislature means less effectiveness.
Term limits also weakens the two basic structures that allow American legislatures to function — party leadership and committees. In legislatures with term limits, campaigns for House speaker and Senate president begin among freshmen lawmakers even before they are sworn in, when they know little about one another’s skills and abilities. Committee chairs have little experience with their panels’ issues or procedures, leading to more chaotic and partisan hearings and reducing their influence in the lawmaking process. Committee chairs and party leaders are also lame ducks as soon as they gain their posts in term-limited legislatures, further weakening their positions.
Finally, term limits opponents argued that the reform would shift power to legislative staff, lobbyists, and the executive branch. Research has shown that this is only partially true. Term limits demoralize staff, leading to more turnover and less influence. Lobbyists despise term limits, since greater legislative turnover requires them to work harder to meet and educate so many new members. On the other hand, research shows quite clearly that the executive branch, particularly the governor, becomes more powerful with term limits. The legislature defers to the governor’s will much more under term limits.
So, in the end, we know that term limits weaken legislatures and strengthen governors. Most of the other arguments you’ve heard on the issue are not supported by the data, so they can be ignored to the extent that they predict the reform to cause something to happen. Of course, someone might argue that term limits are simply a fundamentally right thing to have; it would be hard to refute or support such a first-principled argument. But regardless of the popularity of this reform, I believe that term limits now can and should be judged on its performance, not its promise.
Christopher Z. Mooney is the W. Russell Arrington Professor of State Politics in the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He wrote this column at the request of the Illinois Business Journal.