A “term limit” is a rule that prevents government officials from serving for more than a specified number of terms. More than a technical electoral regulation, a term limit reflects the manner in which citizens envision their leaders: Should politicians be temporary servants of the public who rotate relatively quickly into and out of office, or a corps of experts who remain in power as long as they earn majority support? The main rationale behind mandating turnover through a term limit is that it will bring fresh perspectives to government and ensure responsiveness to voter demands, at the potential cost of losing knowledgeable veterans. Term limits have been debated, and intermittently enacted, throughout the history of democracy.
One ancient Athenian legislature, the Boule, placed a one-term limit on service, an idea argued for by Greek philosopher Aristotle in the fourth century BCE. There were term limits in the first U.S. Congress established under the Articles of Confederation, although the idea was later rejected at the Constitutional Convention because many of the Founding Fathers thought it made Congress weak. The constitutions of Mexico and Costa Rica impose short term limits on both their legislators and presidents. The president of the United States is limited to two terms in office, as are most state governors. The term limit laws that have provoked the fiercest debate and had the most profound effects in America have been the limits enacted since 1990 on state legislators.
In 1990, voters in California, Colorado, and Oklahoma passed citizen initiatives, which for the first time imposed term limits on their state representatives. Two years later, ten more states enacted limits, all of them through initiatives and many of them spurred by the efforts of the “U.S. Term Limits” organization. Predictably, this reform was much less popular among state legislators themselves. Louisiana’s state legislators were the only ones to impose limits on their own term lengths even though they did not face the threat of an initiative. By the end of the decade, twenty-one states had passed term limits. In four of them (Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming), judges overturned these initiatives on technical grounds, and legislators repealed limits in Utah and Idaho. The term limits that remained in effect in fifteen states varied considerably in lengths and strictness. Michigan’s initiative prevented state legislators from serving more than six years in the state’s House and eight years in the Senate, banning them for life afterward. Louisiana’s law, crafted by legislators themselves, imposed a twelve-year limit in each house, and only mandated that legislators sit out a single term before they are eligible to run again. But regardless of these important provisions, all term limit laws proposed were based on a similar line of reasoning and have faced a common set of criticisms.
Proponents of term limits contended they would bring a return to the ideal of the “citizen legislator” who carries the concerns of average voters into office, then quickly leaves to rejoin their ranks. Mandating turnover would replace entrenched incumbents with representatives who were closer to the people. These new lawmakers would not be tainted by allegiances to interest groups or captured by the bureaucracy, the argument went. Because new lawmakers could not plan a long future representing one district, they would be freed from catering to the whims of a narrow constituency and would make decisions with the common welfare in mind. To the supporters, term limits would make it more likely that exiting legislators “would anticipate careers in the private sector and therefore would, as they legislate, think about what it is like to live under the laws they make” (Will 1992, p. 201).
Those who argued against the imposition of term limits in the states and upon members of Congress warned that these laws would throw out of office many legislators with decades of institutional knowledge. Losing this expertise would leave the legislative branch impotent against a massive and well-informed executive branch. Some opponents predicted that after jettisoning their most senior parliamentarians legislatures would see their lawmaking process grind to a halt. Lobbyists and unelected staff would fill the vacuum of information and power, leaving voters poorly represented. One opponent compared the career paths of termed-out legislators to that of Cincinnatus, a Roman farmer much admired by the founders of the United States, who has become the archetype of the citizen legislator, charging that limits “would put at risk the independence of legislators contemplating exit who, rather than returning Cincinnatus-like to their waiting plow, prefer some sort of future elsewhere. Even Cincinnatus might be tempted to send a farm subsidy or two homeward in advance of his return” (Polsby 1993, p. 7).
Given that term limits have removed hundreds of legislators from office in many states, it is possible to judge the predictions made by both term limits’ boosters and adversaries against the empirical record, gleaned from election statistics, surveys of legislators and statehouse observers, and state legislative archives. Not surprisingly, term limits have had their intended effect of greatly increasing turnover. This has brought new faces and perspectives into office, and accelerated gains in representation for racial and ethnic minorities in the states with changing demographics. Yet getting rid of incumbents has not made state legislative elections more competitive; term limits did not cut into the average margin of victory in these contests or lead to more seats changing party hands.
When new legislators come to office after term limits, surveys show, they do tend to think more about statewide concerns than about the demands of their districts. But they also spend less time keeping in touch with voters and working to solve constituent problems, compared to legislators who do not face limits. Although the legislative process has not devolved into chaos anywhere, committees tend to give bills less scrutiny after term limits and the laws that are ultimately produced are usually shorter and narrower. One of the clearest findings about term limits, confirmed in examinations of archival records as well as in interviews with a range of political observers, is that they dramatically reduce the power of the legislative branch. Governors exert more influence over crafting state budgets once limits are imposed, and legislators spend less time on oversight of the executive branch.
In many states as in the federal government, the chief executive also faces term limits. Since the ratification of the Twenty-second Amendment in 1951, U.S. presidents have been allowed to serve for only two elected terms in office. Thirty-four states imposed term limits on governors, with all but one state preventing governors from serving for more than two terms—Virginia’s one-term limit is the exception. Such limits have been motivated less by the desire to bring new perspectives into office and more by concerns about halting the accumulation of power over time into the hands of a single leader. The Twenty-second Amendment was proposed by a Republican Congress not long after Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945) had won his fourth term. The amendment was proposed in order to prevent similarly popular future presidents from holding the office for life. Enacted for similar reasons, term limits on governors have had less profound effects than limits on legislators because they rarely bring political newcomers into office and serve to solidify rather than disrupt the normal rate of turnover.
In American statehouses, by contrast, term limits do much to shape the legislative landscape. It appears term limits will be a permanent feature of state political life since the courts have affirmed term limits in principle (in the Bates v. Jones decision) and most attempts to repeal or relax limits have met with staunch public opposition. The spread of term limits across the nation has also apparently come to a stop because they have been passed in nearly every state with an initiative process and the courts have made it clear that states cannot impose term limits on their members of Congress (in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton ). This leaves the nation in the midst of a large-scale experiment with a central rule of democracy. Approximately a third of state legislatures operate under the same sorts of limits that were imposed under the Articles of Confederation, while two-thirds follow the guidance of the Constitutional Convention to leave legislators unhindered. The coming decades will test the wisdom of each system.
SEE ALSO Aristotle; Democratic Party, U.S.; Elections; Initiative; Interest Groups and Interests; Judicial Review; Republican Party; Supreme Court, U.S.; Voting
Cain, Bruce, Richard Niemi, and Karl Kurtz, eds. 2007. Institutional Change in American Politics: The Case of 130 Term Limits. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Carey, John M. 1996. Term Limits and Legislative Representation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Carey, John M., Richard G. Niemi, and Lynda W. Powell. 2000. Term Limits in the State Legislatures. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Carey, John M., Gary F. Moncrief, Richard G. Niemi, and Lynda W. Powell. Term Limits in the State Legislatures: Results from a New Survey of the 50 States. Legislative Studies Quarterly XXXI (1): 105–136.
Kousser, Thad. 2005. Term Limits and the Dismantling of State Legislative Professionalism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
National Conference of State Legislatures. Legislative Term Limits Overview. http://www.ncsl.org/programs/legismgt/ABOUT/Termlimit.htm.
Petracca, Mark. 1992. Rotation in Office: The History of an Idea. In Limiting Legislative Terms, eds. Gerald Benjamin and Michael Malbin. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
Polsby, Nelson W. 1993. Restoration Comedy. The Yale Law Journal 102: 1515–1526.
Will, George F. 1992 Restoration: Congress, Term Limits, and the Recovery of Deliberative Democracy. New York: Free Press.
"Term Limits." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/term-limits
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term limits, statutory limitations placed on the number of terms officeholders may serve. Focusing especially on members of the U.S. Congress, term limits became an important national political issue during the late 1980s and early 90s and have been vigorously debated. Proponents, who include a large cross section of the American public, feel that a limitation on the period of time a politician may hold office reduces abuses of power and the concentration on reelection by entrenched incumbents, encourages political participation by nonpoliticians, and makes government more responsive to public needs. Opponents maintain that elections already serve as a built-in way of providing term limits, feel that such limits are unconstitutional and undemocratic, and cite the benefits of seniority and of the experience conferred by years in office. Many proponents have called for a constitutional amendment similar to the 22d Amendment (1951), which limits the president's tenure, to set national term limits.
Gubernatorial term limits are the oldest and most common U.S. limitation on officeholding. As early as 1787 the Delaware constitution established a two-term limit for the governor, and nearly four fifths of the states now place some sort of restriction on the number of terms for which an individual may hold the governorship. Legislative term limits are of more recent origin. From 1990 to 2000 a total of 19 states set term limits for state legislators, to take effect variously between 1996 and 2008. Terms limits on state legislators were subsequently overturned (for technical reasons) in Oregon, and repealed by the legislature in Idaho. Twenty-one states approved term limits on members of the U.S. Congress. State term limits on federal legislators were challenged in the courts, and in 1995 the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly ruled that states could not impose them and only a constitutional amendment could assure them. In the 1994 elections Republicans promised a vote on congressional term limits during their successful campaign to win control of Congress, but a constitutional amendment failed to win the necessary votes in 1995. That year, both the Senate and the House officially opposed legislation mandating term limits for their members, and in 1997 the House rejected a constitutional amendment requiring term limits. In addition to the presidential and various state term limits, term limits have also been established for many municipal and other local offices.
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