Do Term Limits Work?

Tackling the problem of career politicians

October 2022

Script

For all our political differences, Americans seem to agree on one thing: None of us like career politicians. That’s why more than 4 out of 5 Americans say they support term limits for members of Congress.i

Here’s the catch: Term limits may create as many problems as they solve. Political scientists have extensively studied what happens in states that adopt term limits and … it ain’t pretty.

States with term limits tend to see more political polarizationii because term-limited politicians looking for their next office tend to toe the party line … and political parties start hand-picking more candidates.

Turnover can also lead to politicians having less expertise on the issues they’re passing laws about.iii And the less lawmakers know, the more they tend to turn to special interests for guidance.

Once California adopted term limits, for instance, some inexperienced lawmakers admitted … that over 90% of their bills were actually written by lobbyists.iv

You’d think that some smart staffers might pick up the slack. But research in California reported that under term limits the staffers actually became “more powerful, but less competent.”v (Because when their bosses were term-limited, many of the most experienced staffers went to the private sector.)

But even if term limits backfire, there’s still at least one way to get rid of underperforming politicians.

We can always just vote them out.

 

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:

  1. 4 out of 5 Americans say they support term limits for members of Congress.
  2. When states implement term limits, polarization tends to increase and politicians tend to know less about policy issues.
  3. Once California adopted term limits, some inexperienced lawmakers admitted that lobbyists wrote over 90% of their bills.

Sources

  1. "M&A Poll: Voters Overwhelmingly Support Term Limits for Congress" (John McLaughlin, Brittany Davin) McLaughlin & Associates
  2. "Legislative Term Limits and Polarization" (Michael P. Olson, Jon C. Rogowski)  The Journal of Politics
  3. "Five Reasons To Oppose Congressional Term Limits" (Casey Burgat) The Brookings Institution
  4. Adapting to Term Limits: Recent Experiences and New Directions  (Bruce E. Cain, Thad Kousser) — Public Policy Institute of California 
  5. Shifting Power in Sacramento: The Effects of Term Limits on Legislative Staff (Katerina L. Robinson) — The California Journal of Politics & Policy

Shownotes

SOUND: Maplewood (Mary Flower) 
FOOTAGE: Mike Stoll (Unsplash)

Sources

  1. McLaughlin & Associates
    "M&A Poll: Voters Overwhelmingly Support Term Limits for Congress" (John McLaughlin, Brittany Davin)
  2. The Journal of Politics
    "Legislative Term Limits and Polarization" (Michael P. Olson, Jon C. Rogowski)
  3. The Brookings Institution
    "Five Reasons To Oppose Congressional Term Limits" (Casey Burgat)
  4. Public Policy Institute of California
    Adapting to Term Limits: Recent Experiences and New Directions  (Bruce E. Cain, Thad Kousser)
  5. The California Journal of Politics & Policy
    Shifting Power in Sacramento: The Effects of Term Limits on Legislative Staff (Katerina L. Robinson)

Delve Deeper

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