Term Limits: Another Bumper-Sticker Solution

Americans have very hazy notions of how government actually works. As a result, they tend to embrace “reforms” that sound superficially attractive but would actually make things worse. I call them “bumper sticker” solutions because they are usually short and simple enough to slap on your car’s bumper.

Vox recently addressed one of those “solutions,” term limits, and did a very good job of explaining why this particular “fix” is a terrible idea.

In one recent survey, 75 percent of Americans said they supported term limits, including 65 percent of Democrats.

For that reason, it’s worth spending a few minutes on this point, because it does get to a fundamental problem with how the public views Washington. There is a perennial myth that the problem with Washington is that the longer people spend there, the more corrupt they become. Therefore, the only way to ensure good judgment in politics is to constantly have a bunch of fresh-faced lawmakers who are total rookies and don’t understand how anything in Washington works.

Since 15 states do have term limits, we actually can know something about their effects. And the political science literature here is pretty unequivocal. Term limits are the surest way to weaken the legislative branch and empower the executive branch. Term limits are also a great way to empower special interests and lobbyists. Basically, what term limits do is shift power toward those who are there for the long haul.

For example, here’s the conclusion from a 50-state survey published in 2006: “Term limits weaken the legislative branch relative to the executive. Governors and the executive bureaucracy are reported to be more influential over legislative outcomes in states where term limits are on the books than where they are not.”

This result has been replicated multiple times. In one study, a post-term-limits respondent said that after term limits, “agencies [do] what they want to. [One bureaucrat told me] we were here when you got here, and we’ll be here when you’re gone.” As the authors of this study note, “Legislative oversight is the venue of specialists. A term-limited legislature tends to be populated by generalists, who lack the accumulated knowledge to exercise oversight effectively, if they even recognize it as their responsibility.”

Term limits also strengthen the power of lobbyists and interest groups for the same reason….  But like the executive agencies of the state government, lobbyists and interest groups are also there year after year. They are the true repeat players building long-term relationships and the true keepers of the institutional knowledge. This gives them power.

The truth of the matter is that government operations are complicated, and competent policymaking requires significant substantive and procedural knowledge. At the federal level, congressional (House) terms are two years–just enough time for a neophyte to find the bathroom and figure out the arcane rules of procedure. The first thing every newly elected Representative does is hire staff from among the available pool of political and policy experts with relevant experience, and for at least the first term–and probably the second–a smart Congress-critter will be guided by those staff member, because they’ve  been around long enough to know the ins and outs.

A significant percentage of the people who staff congressional offices are in Washington for the long haul serving consecutive committees and elected officials. If elected folks are term-limited, those faceless staff members will be the ones really making policy decisions. So much for accountability.

We already have a mechanism for limiting legislators’ terms. It’s called voting. The biggest impediments to its effective use are gerrymandering and civic ignorance.


  1. How is it that a Legislative branch with an approval rate in the twenties gets reelected in the high nineties. Does anyone really think things could be much worse?

  2. My life experience teaches me that over time powerful organizations tend to make themselves self perpetuating by making themselves so complex that only those inside understand “how it works”, thus keeping out anyone who would dare to force them to be responsible toward those they claim to serve. Thus, when a government system becomes so complex that only long serving stooges are capable of navigating it, perhaps it is time for a simple solution.

    Let me add that solutions to problems are not good or bad depending on their complexity. Most often there is no one answer to a very big problem, but rather several solutions, some complex and others very, very simple.

  3. Well, what strikes me as most important about this article is the study of actual results in states that have term limits. Ideas often sound good until we consider how they would actually play out. Here’s some evidence. This idea – not so good.

  4. Seriously, who would want those jobs as representatives? Think about it. They have to spend half their time away from home, half their day begging for money and then half the day fighting off the press that are digging up every skeleton in their closets.
    1. We have to get money out of politics.
    2. We have to make the job better for everyone in the district/region and not just the special interests. I know, let’s outlaw lobbying and outlaw the politicians like Bayh with their swinging doors.
    3. Gerrymandering needs to end, yesterday.
    4. Term limits are a good idea for people are not doing their job, not working and just nursing their ride. We need a way to identify those that do this and get rid of them besides voting them out. Bar them completely.
    5. Shorten the length of campaigns. We’re all sick of campaigns that go on for 2+ yrs! How much work can you do for the people if you are campaigning for 2 yrs.

    The current congress hasn’t done anything of significance this year and have been nothing but nincompoops.
    Other countries manage to govern, why can’t we?

  5. “Let me add that solutions to problems are not good or bad depending on their complexity. Most often there is no one answer to a very big problem, but rather several solutions, some complex and others very, very simple.”

    Theresa; your last paragraph (copied and pasted above) is on target. Rarely; is there one answer to governmental problems (or many personal ones), no one-size-fits-all solution, this is why we must keep up with what is going on at all times – NOT only during an election year such as this one has been.

    Mayor Bill Hudnut’s progressive FOUR TERMS, a total of 16 years in office is an excellent example of why NOT to limit the number of terms. The loss of his gubernatorial race was a loss to all of us; a very close associate of Mayor Hudnut told me of his personal heartbreak and that those he asked about the loss said they voted against him hoping it would urge him to run for a FIFTH term as Mayor of Indianapolis. How very sad because we lost his valued leadership completely.

    Let’s move forward to today and this current local election; specifically District 88 Representative election, this district straddles the Marion County line in the northeast corner. Republican Brian Bosma is in his 30th year in the House; he has consistently run with no opposition from either party. This year he is butting heads with Democrat, Dana Black, who is fighting hard to remove him. Until the past few weeks; Bosma has not bothered to do any campaigning at all and he has not responded to the two invitations to meet and answer questions from his constituents to give them reason to reelect him. Like Donald Trump; he assumes he will win because he deserves it simply due to being Brian Bosma. He is a primary reason this entire state has stagnated and why Pence so easily maintained Daniels’s game plan to control this state and return us to the mid-20th Century regarding our rights – and the lack of our rights as they stand today.

  6. AgingLGrl,

    “Other countries manage to govern, why can’t we?

    Because in most of the countries in Europe, the DEEP PATRIARCHAL SYSTEM like the U.S., is not fascist. The Europeans learned their lesson the hard way. We are now in the process of learning our lesson. What direction will it go? We will know very, very soon.

  7. I am one of those who cringe when I hear “term limits.” I can point out many long term legislators who have been extremely effective servants of the people.

    There are three things necessary to improving the legislative branch and AgingGrl has mentioned two of them. First is money. We have to take money out of politics, possibly with public funding of elections. Second is Gerrymandering. Safe districts are unsafe at any speed. The third is also the most complicated. We need to make sure everyone understands his/her civic responsibility and votes. Make it easier to vote. Perhaps we should even follow Australia’s lead and make it mandatory.

  8. JoAnn,

    Interesting info regarding Brian Bosma. Living in the north part of the state, I would not have known that he refused to take the time to even meet with his constituents.

  9. Marv,

    Regarding learning our lesson – it seems that we have been beaten over our heads for a few decades and still haven’t learned. Will it take a complete citizen revolution? I think so, unless the millennials finally take control and vote en masse.

  10. We all agree that the power of money is the biggest problem with our elections and must be removed. However, how do we accomplish removing it when the legislature(s) are the ones who are making the rules? It is like “asking” the fox to stay away from the hen house. This is why I continue to believe that it will take a revolution to change things.

  11. Nancy,

    It would be a REVOLUTION OF COURAGE as the author of the article in the Philadelphia Magazine was encouraging in yesterday’s post. You lead, I’ll follow. As I have mentioned before, I have this thing about FEMINISM.

  12. We HAVE term limits. They are called “elections.” For congress, they happen every two years. If the people who a particular representative represents wants him or her out, they have that choice. If THEY are happy with their rep, it is no other District’s business.

    The so-called term limits are just a way of some people trying to control OTHER peoples’ votes.

  13. Marv,

    I am doing what I can where I live. Will be attending a debate tomorrow night between local candidates for state rep. Hope that current rep Dave Wolkins’ is exposed for being in bed with ALEC for the past 28 years.

    Also, for the first time ever in my life I have allowed political signs in my yard. I live on a highway so they get max exposure. I don’t know that signs actually accomplish anything, but if anyone in my area or community had any doubt about where I stand politically, they now know. This actually is a very big thing in my area to be so publicly against the Repub team.

  14. Pat Carrithers,

    Gerrymandering in Indiana has ended any possibility of term limits when the repub team has managed to lock up so many voting districts. Where I vote there might be one or two Dems to vote for.

    People can claim that all you have to do to remove politicians from office is vote, but this is not the case. It is much more complicated than that and this is why people continue to be so angry with our government, yet keep voting in the same candidates.

  15. Nancy,

    If a REVOLUTION OF COURAGE is to come, it can only start in INDIANA. It’s the APEX of the DAL-JAX-INDY TRIANGLE. That’s one of the many reasons why Mike Pence was chosen to be Donald Trump’s running mate.

    a-pex (a’ peks’) n., pl. a’pex’es or ap-i-ces (ap’e sez) [L] 1. the highest point 2. the pointed end 3. THE CLIMAX

  16. Nancy,

    “This actually is a very big thing in my area to be so publicly against the Repub team.”

    Maybe bigger than you think. Let’s go. You’ve got the Ethical Front behind you for a starter. The REVOLUTION OF COURAGE can spread very quickly to the other nodes of the DAL-JAX-INDY TRIANGLE. The courage is there. It just needs the right spark.

  17. I have been opposed to term limits since the idea first made the scene. The real culprit in this political mire is gerrymandering. You don’t need a majority to win; you only need smart people to divvy up the geography of it all. We Democrats consistently have large majorities in the overall count for the House of Representatives, yet there is a Republican majority holding forth on the banks of the Potomac. Por que? Gerrymandering, and so much for majority rule, the supposed bedrock principle undergirding democracy. It is nauseating to see and hear Republican candidates extolling democracy on the stump while supporting its demise in the back room, speaking of rigging.

  18. Nancy,

    I recommend “Freedom from Fear” by Aung Sun Sui Kyi (Sue Burma) and Michael Aris (her husband (London: Penguin Books, 1991) forward by Vaclav Havel and Desmond M. Tutu

    President of the National League for Democracy
    Assumed office
    18 November 2011
    Preceded by Aung Shwe
    Leader of the Opposition
    In office
    2 May 2012 – 29 January 2016
    President Thein Sein
    Preceded by Sai Hla Kyaw
    General Secretary of the National League for Democracy
    In office
    27 September 1988 – 18 November 2011
    Preceded by Position established
    Succeeded by Position abolished
    Member of the Burmese House of Representatives
    for Kawhmu
    In office
    2 May 2012 – 30 March 2016
    Preceded by Soe Tint
    Succeeded by Vacant
    Majority 46,73 (71.38%)
    Personal details
    Born 19 June 1945 (age 71)
    Rangoon, British Burma
    (now Yangon)

    We need new models to emulate if the REVOLUTION OF COURAGE is to succeed. The best would be Aung San Suu Kyi and her understanding of how to overcome fear. “Freedom from Fear” by Aung San Suu Kyi and Michael Aris [her deceased husband] (London: Penguin Books, 1991) Forewards by Vaclav Havel and Desmond M. Tutu

    From Wikipedia:

    Aung San Suu Kyi (Burmese: အောင်ဆန်းစုကြည်; MLCTS: aung hcan: cu. krany, /aʊŋˌsæn.suːˈtʃiː/, Burmese pronunciation: [àʊɴ sʰáɴ sṵ tɕì]; born 19 June 1945) is a Burmese statesperson, politician, diplomat and author who serves as the First and incumbent State Counsellor and Leader of the National League for Democracy. She is also the first woman to serve as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Myanmar, the Minister of the President’s Office, the Minister of Electric Power and Energy, and the Minister of Education in President Htin Kyaw’s Cabinet, and from 2012 to 2016 was a Pyithu Hluttaw MP for Kawhmu Township.

    The youngest daughter of Aung San, Father of the Nation of modern-day Myanmar, and Khin Kyi, Aung San Suu Kyi was born in Rangoon, British Burma. After graduating from the University of Delhi in 1964 and the University of Oxford in 1968, she worked at the United Nations for three years. She married Michael Aris in 1972, and gave birth to two children. Aung San Suu Kyi rose to prominence in the 1988 Uprisings, and became the General Secretary of the newly formed National League for Democracy (NLD). In the 1990 elections, NLD won 81% of the seats in Parliament, but the results were nullified, as the military refused to hand over power, resulting in an international outcry. She had, however, already been detained under house arrest before the elections. She remained under house arrest for almost 15 of the 21 years from 1989 to 2010, becoming one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners.

    Her party boycotted the 2010 elections, resulting in a decisive victory for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. Aung San Suu Kyi became a Pyithu Hluttaw MP while her party won 43 of the 45 vacant seats in the 2012 by-elections. In the 2015 elections, her party won a landslide victory, taking 86% of the seats in the Assembly of the Union — well more than the 67 percent supermajority needed to ensure that its preferred candidates were elected President and Second Vice President in the Presidential Electoral College. Although she was prohibited from becoming the President due to a clause in the constitution – her late husband and children are foreign citizens – she assumed the newly created role of State Counsellor, a role akin to a Prime Minister or a head of government.

    Aung San Suu Kyi has gained international acclaim, having received many honours, including the: Rafto Prize, Sakharov Prize, Nobel Peace Prize, Jawaharlal Nehru Award, Order of Australia, US Congressional Gold Medal, and Presidential Medal of Freedom. She is an honorary citizen of many countries, including Canada, and was an honorary member of Nelson Mandela’s Elders.

  19. Mr. Trump is going to initiate term limits on Congress with the stroke of a pen within his first 100 days in office.

  20. I think that one measure of the efficacy of term limits is the number of corporations who fire people automatically as they become experienced.

  21. Does anybody doubt that our best choice today would be third term Obama?

    That bit of democracy was thrown away in:

    The Twenty-second Amendment (Amendment XXII) of the United States Constitution sets a term limit for election and overall time of service to the office of President of the United States. Congress passed the amendment on March 21, 1947. It was ratified by the requisite 36 of the then-48 states on February 27, 1951.

  22. “We already have a mechanism for limiting legislators’ terms. It’s called voting. The biggest impediments to its effective use are gerrymandering and civic ignorance.”

    Of the two of these impediments gerrymandering pass to be tackled first. These Republican super majorities, like the one in this state, have basically shut the system down. I applaud your work and tried to redress this situation as others are across the nation. It has essentially nullified voting and that we’ve ended up with essentially one party rule at the state and local levels. This is obviously not conducive to democracy nor in having a government that is responsive to the needs of all its citizens. It has to be changed the even if that includes bulldozing the ALEC headquarters in Virginia, after its occupants are warned to leave the building obviously.

    Civic ignorance will unfortunately take longer to address which is a real shame because of all the people I know personally who are good people but lack the awareness to see the sham news that is being peddled to them as being just that, a sham. Our founding fathers knew this was going to be a problem from day one but it is indeed ironic that today were we have access to so much information people are so ignorant of facts, largely undermined by the dribble that passes for news coverage largely available via social media. Just yesterday a good friend of mine posted on Facebook a piece that stated that Vladimir Putin had given President Obama a 24-hour ultimatum after which he was going to order his ships to open fire on ours in the western Mediterranean. The gist of this post was to push the notion that if Hillary Clinton is elected President that we will immediately have war with Russia. My friend, who is a nurse practitioner and a very lucid thinker, seemed panic stricken by what she had read on one of those fly by night conservative sights on Facebook. I had to calm her down with information and I knew to be true regarding the composition of the Russian naval forces in route to the Med and that as crazy as Putin may be that he would not arbitrarily start a war with us just out of the blue.

    So what we have is good folks that may be deficient in certain areas of information being manipulated by people the are actively working to scare people out of their wits. Some how, some way, this crap, and that’s all it is, has to be stopped.

    I am all for free speech, spent four years in the United States Navy in order to defend that right, but Facebook needs to be taken to task for allowing people that push this malarkey to have sites on their system. In many ways it is like yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre and doing so for short term political gain. Yelling “fire” in a theatre is a felony yet these clowns do so with total impunity.

    So we need to not only educate people and ensure educational system is up to the task but we also have to find a way go after those fear mongers that currently free rein to do whatever they want to do. It’s just not right and until we find some way to prevent this from happening any efforts to improve the informational level average citizens have will continue to be undermined.

  23. daleb,

    Mr. Trump in his recent “Gettysburg Address” has also promised to retaliate against his opponents. Just another reason to make sure he isn’t elected President. It reminds me of my “showtrial” after our successful victory in the One man, One vote battle in Dallas in 1991.

    Let me tell you, it doesn’t feel good EVEN when you’re the one who initiated the “showtrial.” By the way, I won my own “showtrial” against the State Bar of Texas. The presiding judge removed herself with the statement: “Because of Mr. Kramer’s reputation, I will be prejudiced against the State Bar of Texas.” But that didn’t stop the fascist Dallas oligarchy. It takes a REVOLUTION OF COURAGE that the attorneys and other citizens of Dallas lacked at the time. I’ve been there before. Our “window of opportunity” is right now, not tomorrow.

    From wikipedia: A show trial is a public trial in which the judicial authorities have already determined the guilt of the defendant. The actual trial has as its only goal to present the accusation and the verdict to the public as an impressive example and as a WARNING to other would-be dissidents or transgressors. Show trials tend to be retributive rather than correctional justice and also conducted for propagandistic purposes. The term was first recorded in the 1930s. [during the Nazi regime]

  24. @KenGlass: You do realize, sir, that when a voter goes to the polling place, he is not given a choice to vote or or against the entire “legislative branch”. He is voting for a representative for a particular district, and the borders of that district were (in most places) drawn to favor the victory of one party or the other. Perhaps you have heard of this practice called gerrymandering. Maybe if you learn more about it, you will better understand how the high rates of reelection of incumbents happens.

  25. Gerrymandering is like that old adage about the weather, “Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it.” It has been “news” when election time rolls around but seems to get lost thereafter. How many organizations have been formed and a public meeting held to author an actual bill to present to Congress such as Sheila was part of recently? With reasonably set district lines…which remain in place no matter which party represents the district…term limits wouldn’t even be a consideration.

    Is the lack of action to change redistricting by using reasonable guidelines due to the lack of action by the Democratic party or are they being voted down in state legislatures and not considered “news”? Is the GOP based media, such as Gannett, buying up local news sources (Gannet ownership appears to be total in Indiana) how information is being ignored? The Indianapolis Star is a prime example of a pitiful news source regarding anything local, including politics. The sample abbreviated version of USA Today provides much less than total national, international and political information. We are forced to rely on social media and whichever political news source we prefer as the best source.

    “Does anybody doubt that our best choice today would be third term Obama?”

    Pete; I have been surprised at how many social media posts I have seen supporting a third term for Obama as an option they would choose…including formerly staunch Republican voters. The members of the GOP stating they do NOT support Trump but will vote for him are not being called out for the liars they are. I might believe them on other issues if they said they do not agree with Trump but will vote for him; there is higher form of support than our vote. They evidently believe we are not smart enough to know this; banking on our intelligence level being that of those wild-eyed Trump supporters who believe everything he says. Let’s prove them all wrong on November 8th.

  26. Another bit of poor editing on my part; that should of course say, “…there is NO higher form of support than our vote…”

  27. Tom, “It’s just not right and until we find some way to prevent this from happening any efforts to improve the informational level average citizens have will continue to be undermined

    They must be confronted. The following is from “The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen [Eric Schmidt is executive chairman of Google and Jared Cohen is director of Google Ideas] (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) pages 125-126:

    “The profusion of new voices online and the noise they’ll generate will require all of us to adjust our definition of a dissident. After all, not everyone who speaks his or her mind online–which to some degree is almost everyone with an Internet connection–can be branded a dissident. The people who surface in the nex wave of dissident leaders will be the ones who can command a following and crowd-source their online support, who demonstrable skill with digital marketing tools, and, critically, who are willing to put themselves physically in harm’s way. Digital activism, especially when done remotely or with anonymity, lowers the stakes for would-be protestors, so true leaders will distinguish themselves by taking on physical risks that their virtual supporters cannot or will not.”

    I’ve previously posted the above on this blog.

  28. “We already have a mechanism for limiting legislators’ terms. It’s called voting. The biggest impediments to its effective use are gerrymandering and civic ignorance.”

    It is very hard to just “vote them out” when there is only one party candidate for the office. It becomes impossible to remove someone from office when there is no competitor to choose. Often the primary contests within a party are de facto general elections. The voters in Indiana who participate in the primaries are the “deciders”, most definitely in gerrymandered districts.
    Unfortunately, there are current Indiana House members who publicly state that they do not see any issue with the status quo and will do whatever it takes to maintain it, to their own benefit, the public good be damned.

    Getting the dark money out of the process and shortening the campaigns would be a reasonable way to reform. Unfortunately, voters have ceded the power of that money and its ubiquitous presence in campaigns length. Getting it back is going to be nearly impossible. The genii is out of the bottle.

  29. Thanks for detailing reasons against term limits. As a former lobbyist, I can attest that lobbyists have much more influence over the newcomers, but those with institutional knowledge were greatly valued in helping to avoid costly mistakes of the past.

    You are exactly right that removing gerrymandering is a better approach to making legislators responsive. Those whose districts are so safe that they feel little need to pay attention to constituents would become more responsive right away if their districts became 50-50.

    As with other humans, some legislators will be responsible in honoring their obligations to the constitution and their constituents regardless of political dynamics and some will prioritize themselves first regardless of their years in office. Competitive districts enable voters to more easily remove the latter.

  30. To answer Ken Glass, Mary Strinka a partially correct, but one big factor for decades was the basic idea that everyone hated congress, but loved their own representative. Your representative is a pork-barrel politician while mine brings home the bacon. So it goes.

    I love to remind people that the impetus for the “modern” incarnation of the term limits push was in California. The Speaker of the General Assembly, one Willie Brown, was hated by many — except his constituents who loved him and kept re-electing him. How, thought the Republicans, can we thwart the will of the people and be rid of Willie Brown? Term limits, of course.

    I wish I had saved the Op-Ed from an Illinois Congresswoman who had “taken the pledge” to only serve two terms. She basically said “oops, I was wrong and I am not leaving”.
    Similarly, the was Michigan Governor John Engler who took the two term pledge and quietly slipped into obscurity — after this third term.

    Term limits is a bad idea for all of the reasons that Shiela and others here have enumerated. Those who propose it usually understand that.

    In Brief, term limits was always this noble-sounding idea that is really about getting rid of Democrats who keep getting re-elected.

  31. Revolutions scare me. If you have several small groups working on one aspect of a problem, and sort of weave it together, maybe nobody will notice we were actually doing a “R word”, esp if people get free pizza or something.

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