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.