Term Limits Don't Work


States that have tried limiting lawmakers' time in office aren't better off.

By Stanley M. Caress, Contributor | Jan. 16, 2015, at 8:00 a.m. https://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2015/01/16/states-show-term-limits-wouldnt-work-for-congress

Sorry, term limits don't work. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

While some pundits claim that imposing term limits on Congress will help cure many of its ills, evidence from states that have already adopted such measures actually suggests the opposite. States that have restricted their legislators’ time in office have seen no clear benefits but rather some unexpected negative results. There is no reason to expect that it would be different for Congress. 

Some states began placing term limits on their legislatures in 1990, virtually always by voter-approved ballot propositions. Voters were persuaded that term limits were desirable by several different arguments. One of the more compelling was that such limits would create a new breed of citizen legislators more reflective of the public’s will. In turn, this would weaken the grip that special interest lobbyists had on lawmaking.

In fact, the backgrounds of state legislators elected after term limits were imposed closely resemble the backgrounds of those elected before such restrictions. They typically have previous political experience and are more educated and affluent than the voters who selected them. And while term limits have changed the way lobbyists do their business, they have actually increased their influence. The legislators elected after term limits were imposed often lack knowledge of the details of many complex policies and turn to lobbyists for information. These special interest groups actually report that they now work harder “educating” less knowledgeable legislators.

Others argue that term limits would open new opportunities for underrepresented minority candidates. This idea assumes that tenure restrictions would dislodge incumbent white males and allow others to take their place. After term limits were adopted, the number of women elected to state legislatures did increase, but this happened at the same rate as in states without such restrictions. Term limits provided no clear advantages for minority candidates either.

Instead, state legislatures with term limits have experienced some unforeseen problems. Newly elected legislators tend to be more partisan and ideological than their more seasoned colleagues. Long-serving lawmakers often become more understanding of the rival party and learn how to find workable compromises. Novice legislators, fresh from the campaign trail, often see the other party as an enemy. This can greatly inhibit the coalition-building needed to pass budgets and meaningful laws.

In reality, there is almost no possibility that congressional term limits will be enacted. In the past, some states attempted to impose term limits on their congressional delegations in the same way they restricted state legislators. However, in 1995, the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot force their standards on the national legislative body because it violates Congress’ constitutional right to determine its own rules. Also, the few times term limits have been brought up for a vote in the House of Representatives, they failed. It is clear that Congress is not inclined to restrict its own members’ right to be re-elected. Term limits could be imposed by a constitutional amendment, but to even propose such a change would require a two-thirds vote from both chambers or a constitutional convention.

Congressional term limits may sound appealing, but in truth, they could hinder an already fragile lawmaking process. Limits will most likely never be imposed on Congress, and that is probably the best thing for the nation.

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