Why Term Limits Aren’t The Remedy

We Americans are really, really attracted to what I call “bumper sticker” solutions to our problems–pithy “fixes” that you can slap on a bumper sticker. One of the most popular is Congressional term limits, which would rid us of doofuses like Louie Gohmert, but also deprive us of the invaluable institutional memory and wisdom of a Richard Lugar, or the savvy of a Nancy Pelosi.

My primary concern about term limits as a “quick and easy” solution to bad lawmaking is  institutional. When a new Congressperson gets to D.C., he or she immediately looks for seasoned staff members. There is a small army of aides, lawyers, content specialists and the like who rotate among Congressional offices as this or that Senator or Representative retires or loses an election. They are knowledgable about the ins and outs, the “way things work,” and they are invaluable to a newbie just learning the ropes.

If that congressperson is compelled to leave office just after they’ve figured out where the restrooms are and where the bodies are buried–a process that takes at least two terms–who do you think will end up running Congress? And we don’t elect staff members. We don’t even know who they are.

If we don’t think our elected representatives are sufficiently accountable, why would our approval or disapproval matter to an actual “deep state”?

But there are other reasons to be dubious about the efficacy of term limits, and Pierre Atlas,  who teaches political science at Marian College, recently posted a colleague’s paper to Facebook detailing the relevant research. Following are a few tidbits from that paper.

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.

A study of the Nebraska Unicam 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.. 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.

Other research found other negative consequences. (Citations to the research are in the linked paper.)

Term limits reduced voter turnout.

Termed-limited legislators put less effort into lawmaking in their final term, sponsoring fewer bills, doing less work on committees, and skipping more votes.

In Michigan, term limits limited legislator expertise and reinforced the power of caucus leaders, regional cliques, and consulting networks.

Redistricting is more partisan and more aggressive in term-limited states.

In inexperienced legislatures, power tends to be concentrated in the hands of a few experts.

For legislators with long term career goals in politics, term limits makes them less interested in constituent service, but more interested in fundraising.

Unfortunately, term limits aren’t a substitute for the hard work of citizenship–defined as voters who pay attention to what lawmakers are doing, and use the ballot box to limit the terms of those who aren’t measuring up.


  1. Here in Michigan, I ask supporters of term limits, ‘would you invest in a $60 billion a year corporation that fires 100% of its mangers every 6 years?’ The answer is clearly no but this exposes that term limits are designed to eliminate anyone who learns how to legislate. It really does not serve much purpose other than an anti-government agenda.

  2. it is time a modern government learns to vet its people running for election. The “campaign” model is ridiculous, consisting of cheerleaders and a band and declarations of: “I’m going to win.” Do we really have any “qualifying” requirements of substance for the people who somehow end up running the country? No! A lot of people we elect are not good leaders. They are not even good citizens!

  3. Term limits and a three-party system are both “bumper sticker” solutions which would only increase problems in our two-party system which relies on the Electoral College to appoint the president no matter who wins the majority vote. We had a four-party system in 2016, a five-party system if you remember the Bernie Bots; this resulted in a total of more than 10 MILLION Americans voting against Trump. Add to that situation the mix of removing and replacing members of the Legislature due to the time they have been in office and confusion would reign supreme. If people paid more attention to candidates prior to all Primary Elections we could keep some fools, such as Gohmert, from being elected in the first place and reelected repeatedly as Indiana’s own Brian Bosma who has been sitting in the House for 34 years with his first opponent 4 years ago.

    “Unfortunately, term limits aren’t a substitute for the hard work of citizenship–defined as voters who pay attention to what lawmakers are doing, and use the ballot box to limit the terms of those who aren’t measuring up.”

    Those Primary Elections could have stopped many of the current undesirables sitting in defense of Trump in the Senate rather than sitting in judgement based on evidence as they swore to do.

  4. My problem with not having term limits is that it favors only the elected officials who by some means manage to stay elected. Voters may be powerless to vote them out if they’re deeply entrenched. And corruption becomes more likely.

  5. Term limits would weaken the government allowing more power to be retained by the Oligarchy. This is why the former Tea Party, now the GOP, insists on term limits.

    They are puppets of industry giants like the Koch’s and manipulated by the Murdoch’s. The smaller the government the better for our current greedy Oligarchs. They might scoff at Trump’s antics but he’s delivered across the board for donors of the DNC and GOP.

    As for candidates being vetted, that’s the job of our “Free Press”. As voters, our job is to be involved and research candidates as well. As JoAnn said, it’s why millions of voters refused to vote for the DNC chosen candidate in 2016 who grossly interfered in the primaries leading to DJT gaining access to the WH.

    Term limits will do nothing to check the money, greed, and power ruining this country and many others across the international landscape. The Oligarchs have had their way for 40+ years in this country to destroy everything which checked their power. It’s too late for bandaids.

  6. When we look at our election systems, we can see that we have a lot of work to do to make them work better for us. For your consideration:

    We need to limit the election season. We’ve been inundated with candidate speak since January, 2017. We should think about a national primary in June or July of the election year, limit advertising for candidates to two months prior to the primary. After the primary, the top two candidates face each other. Have the same rules apply for all elected offices.

    We need to have a Constitutional amendment stating that money isn’t speech and organizations (ie corporations, unions etc.) are not people and have no rights under the Constitution. (Consider that women are generally accepted to be people, but the only Constitutional right we have is the one to vote.) After that, we need to limit spending (by all interested parties) on campaigns.

    Election day should be at least a half holiday for all eligible voters. We also need to begin investing in secure automatic registration and voting from personal computers or tablets.

    None of this would be easy to accomplish, but IMHO it would be worth the effort

  7. The term limit question continues a false focus on fixing our politics – the process. Suppose most legislators were Elijah Cummings…it’s the people who serve, not how long.

  8. Just look at our neighbor to the north (Michigan) and you can easily see the negatives of term limits!

  9. We have to do something about career officials who get too comfortable in their jobs. I propose the following: Reduce U.S. Senate terms to four years. Allow two terms. Congresspeople would be held to two, two-year terms. President held to two-year terms as now.

    During a primary election, the incumbent’s Party can run her/him again BUT, they must also run a second candidate for that office. If the incumbent wins by 65%, the incumbent may run in the general election and the second candidate is out. If the incumbent fails to get 65% of the vote, the incumbent is out and the second candidate runs in the general. None of the Parties will like this proposal, but that’s irrelevant. The founders never intended for anyone to be a professional representative.

  10. Pat Bauer is retiring after 50 years, Brian Bosma after 34. Two powerful Speakers who knew the ropes, and pleased their respective party. Term limits would have made this impossible.

    Regarding limits on our President, we’ll likely not reverse the anti-FDR limit despite the animus created by Trump’s Impeachment and certain acquittal.

  11. I agree that term limits weakens the short-term operations of state and Federal governments. I don’t think the partisanship argument is all that valid. Look at how divided and partisan our state and Federal Congresses are now. As someone pointed out, it’s the money influencing politics. Remember the move, “The Candidate”? It was about an idealist who ended up succumbing to the “machine” of politics, i.e., money.

    Overturning Citizens United vs. FEC would do way more to solving our election and candidate woes than term limits. So would trimming the national election season down to six months instead of 24/7/365.25. Make election day a national holiday. With a shorter election season, it would be affordable to publicly finance campaigns for candidates who passed a petition-for-ballot hurdle.

  12. My response to arguments for term limits is that we already have them. They’re called elections.

    Of course, making them work effectively requires actual civic participation. That, in turn, requires giving up false narratives (“government is the problem”) and false equivalences (“both parties are the same”), and engaging with the electoral process in ways that go beyond our own self-interest (“Trump obviously is corrupt and criminal, but I just can’t feel good about voting for Hillary”).

  13. There is a mistaken belief that the more the merrier is better, I think, judging by human history, “the more the merrier” adds to severe polarization. A nonparty system would work much better. That way, you could get some actual debate and movement on issues without claiming someone is a Rhino or a Libertard!

    It is currently, way too easy to demonize and demoralize by hurling insults at the “other” (other party!) FACTS? You don’t need no stinking FACTS! All One needs to polarize, is a foil. If One has no foil, one would then have to concentrate on facts, at least more than is presently done. Everyone would be in the same pot, debates would be against other candidates with varying ideas, it would be much easier, and much less congested during the actual election, with a much more diverse set of ideas than we have at present.

    We also would not have the out and out buffoonery that was on display yesterday during Trumpian final arguments. I’m all for falling on one’s sword for the good of mankind, but why should/would anyone fall on their sword for a buffoon?

    If there was only one party, they could focus on the buffoonery rather than a conspiracy by the “others” (other party) after all, it always has to be about the “others.” Let’s face it, there is a significant number of the population that can be manipulated to hate those who are not of their tribal affiliation. If everyone is from the same tribe, then the hatred has to be based on ideas and not based on “others,” simpler is always better, clutter is always bad.

    Clutter can hide a multitude of evils, simpler would spotlight those who try to beat around the bush concerning misogyny and racism, they’d either have to knock it off or go in with both feet 1st. It definitely would be quite revealing.

    Yesterday, it was like watching a bunch of middle schoolers, running around behind the bully, because they think the bully is going to get them where they want to be, but where that is, they might not want! Power is intoxicating, chasing intoxication is an addiction, addiction brings about misery and death!

  14. Republican’s are campaigning against democracy simply becuase it’s an ineffective path to power for them. Their campaign is deep and wide and endless and in all things. It’s basically what the the tentacles of the Koch organization and Russian intelligence have spent decades infiltrating. Some of the attacks on democracy resort to misinforming voters via social/entertainment media advertising/fake news/propaganda/brainwashing which in our culture now is simply a service for sale to anyone with enough money. I will never unhear the first time it was revealed to me that the Tea Party had been taught to revile democracy as the majority preventing minority power and thus their enemy. Trump was an overwhelming prize for both Russians and Republicans so they became mutual supporters but the Russian agenda is somewhat different than the Republican agenda and could be switched from the RNC to the DNC someday depending on shifting threats and opportunities.

    Both these efforts and the framers of the Consitution recognized that democracy is at the very core of taming the endless search for power by conditioning power on continuous approval of a majority of those governed. As soon as gathering power became a RNC necessity it became targeted.

    Thus what liberals really hold most dear, equal rights and opportunity for everyone with nobody else advantaged by law, is and will continue to crumble as long as the anti democracy campaign exists.

    Our solution now is clear. Vote blue no matter who until we snuff anti democracy out as we did in all of the legitimate wars we have fought but this one closest to the Civil War as inside our borders. We need to know that we can protect the Consitution still by using the Constitutional powers granted to us.

  15. Someone mentioned abolishing political parties. How would you enforce that? Repeal the first Amendment?

  16. A few posts suggest that millions of Americans are brainwashed. Have you ever been successful changing the mind of anyone on any issue? How many of us have invested almost twenty years in a daily regimen of brainwashing techniques (backed up with help from schools and churches) to insure that our children end up thinking a certain way only to find that the kids either fail to absorb the ‘brainwashing” or elect not to think at all? LOL and FAH (funny as hell).

  17. Good article. The real solution to the problem that term limits are trying to solve is ending gerrymandering. If districts really reflected the voters interests, they would vote out the bad legislators and vote in good ones, no need for term limits.

  18. Oh come on Larry Kaiser!

    The first amendment says there has to be Democrats and Republicans? The first amendment says there has to be more than one party? Does the first amendment say there has to be any party at all? You would want to run for president, it should be Larry Kaiser. if I want to run for president it should be John Sorg, if Sheila Kennedy wanted to run for president it should be Sheila Kennedy. Without having to toe a party line, facts and figures would have to be arrived at. Ideas would abound, people would have a choice. A true choice! The nincompoopery and flim-flam shenanigans would definitely weed themselves out. If there can be more than two parties, there also can be no parties. You can still have senators, Representatives, presidents, judges, but they would be regular old Americans, not Democratic Americans nor Republican Americans nor libertarian nor socialist nor whatever Americans.

  19. The steps, not easy by any means would be limit political contributions from human beings only of voting age. The contribution could be to the candidate or party. There would be a limit on the amount per human say $3,000 for a Federal office candidate, per election cycle. You would not be able to use a PAC or Super PAC to launder the money into a campaign since a PAC or Super PAC is not a human.

  20. ML,

    Yes yes yes, the field would be balanced then wouldn’t it? There would be no buying the elections anymore, individuals would espouse their ideas, solutions, and visions to make society better for all. Remember the soap box? People would go into the public square and stand on a literal soapbox or some other platform. They would espouse their ideas and opinions, they would either ring true for many or the person would just go home.

    The most popular and innovative would be chosen to debate with others from around the country, a winner would be chosen by popular vote.

  21. I am glad to see so many agree with what I have been saying for decades. The only source of knowledge would be lobbyists. Though sure it is that the irresponsibilities of representatives stems from lack of courage and integrity. Whether by lack of attention by constituents or too much influence by lobbyists, the only remedy is an intelligent, involved electorate. Good luck!

  22. Thank you for tackling this issue. You are so right. Term limits concentrate power in unelected staff, lobbyists, special interest groups, and in the executive branch of government which already is generally more powerful than the legislative branch.

    As already stated here, making districts more competitive is a far better solution.

    As a retired lobbyist myself, I came to value legislators who knew the ropes, had institutional and deep issues memory, and could get things done. New legislators were a breath of fresh air, but it took years for them to become knowledgeable and effective. More than one legislator told me it took them several years to learn enough to break out of their own narrow paradigms to represent all their constituents.

  23. A modest proposal: The President, Vice President, cabinet members, and members of Congress should be prohibited from accepting any income other than their government salaries and from holding any investments other than cash in US dollars and US government securities. If they want to work for the people, they should work only for the people.

  24. Assembling (conventions, caucuses and primaries) and petitioning (party platforms) pretty much define the activities of a political party. And both assembling and petitioning are protected by the First Amendment.

    If some junior high idealistic bellyachers manage to eliminate political parties, I will go back to college for my law degree just so I can be the big hero who wins the legal battle at the Supreme Court. Easiest win in history. Even with the Court stacked as it is. Dumb old Donald could win that case.

  25. Sheila – amen, sister.

    John Sorg – I grew up in Detroit where all municipal elections were non-partisan and off-year. Everybody knew who sided with which party and the campaign staffs were drawn from people who were on one side or the other during the regular election cycle. It actually worked fairly well for the terms of two honest mayors (left of center and right of center), but then again, that was sandwiched between Mariani (jailed after leaving office for tax evasion) and Coleman Young, whom I strongly supported, but was a complete disappointment as mayor.

  26. Larry,

    Women petitioned the government for their grievances, this was done without political party affiliation. Religious organizations petitioned the government to reinforce their freedoms to worship as they saw fit per First Amendment rights, this was done without party affiliation. African-American men petitioned the government for their voting rights, this was done without party affiliation. The civil rights movement Basically petitioned the government for freedom of speech and redress of civil grievances!

    That’s what our court system is used for, that’s why there is a judicial branch of government which is supposed to be independent. And Larry, I don’t think if you went back to law school, and got your license to practice law, you would win that case. One does not need a political party to redress grievances to government, but they would need a good lawyer and an impartial judiciary.

    These conventions, caucuses and primaries are used mostly for strutting like peacocks, and a corporate lobbyist sanctuary, rather than doing the work of the people! The people should be in charge of conventions and primaries promoting ideas to other citizens. The whole setup of government is designed to eliminate the average citizen. The average citizen has given up their right to knowledge and self-governance to those, which make a living by controlling civil society. Taking back that right by the average citizen, would encourage the average citizen to become more educated on how to make government work for every man and woman.

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