The False Promise of Term Limits

Limiting lawmakers’ time in office only exacerbates the problems with our government.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott addresses supporters as he holds a Senate campaign rally at Interstate Beverage on April 10 in Hialeah, Florida.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott addresses supporters as he holds a Senate campaign rally at Interstate Beverage on April 10 in Hialeah, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It’s ironic, but true, that the easiest play for any aspiring lawmaker is to run against Washington. It works if you’re new and it works if you’re a veteran of political life. It even works if you’re openly corrupt. Despite a lifetime of shady, unethical, and possibly illegal behavior, Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp” and millions of Americans believed him.

For those seeking some quick populist credibility with voters, congressional term limits are an easy promise. Newt Gingrich called for term limits in his “Contract With America” in 1994, and, more recently, his ideological successors in the Tea Party also pledged term limits as a means to clean up Congress. Trump called for term limits in his presidential campaign, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott is doing the same as he makes his bid for Senate. Republicans aren’t the only enthusiasts. On Thursday, Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke called for a constitutional amendment to limit federal lawmakers to 12 years in office. Term limits, said O’Rourke on Twitter, “are essential to returning power to the people and finally having a government that is responsive to those it purports to serve & represent.”

But there’s a problem: Term limits won’t deliver you to this promised land of functioning government. Term limits exacerbate all the worst features of American governance, while improving little about our candidates or elections. The quality of lawmaking goes down, the influence of lobbyists goes up, and public spiritedness erodes even further.

O’Rourke’s amendment, like every push for term limits, is likely dead in the water. But there’s a reason the idea endures. Congress isn’t responsive to ordinary voters, and too many lawmakers have been captured by corporate interests. Incumbency rates are high, and extreme partisan gerrymandering insulates too many congresspeople from electoral competition. And while some of our long-serving legislators are competent stewards of the public interest, others are more known for their offensive outbursts than anything else.

It’s not unreasonable to look at these problems and conclude that Washington needs term limits to restore a measure of accountability and responsiveness. It helps too that term limits are easy to understand: When your time is up, you leave, opening the door to fresh blood and new ideas.

Except that, in actual practice, term-limiting congresspeople is a cure far worse than the disease. Fifteen states have term limits on their legislatures, giving us a chance to compare performance. The results are unambiguous. “Term limits weaken the legislative branch relative to the executive. Governors and the executive bureaucracy are reported to be more influential over legislative outcomes in states where term limits are on the books than where they are not,” concludes a 2006 study on the subject. The researchers, who compared legislators in all 50 states, found important behavioral shifts as well: Term-limited lawmakers spent less time on constituent services but equal time on campaigning and fundraising.

Power under term limits doesn’t just accrue to executive-office holders and bureaucrats, who hold more experience and knowledge of governance than term-limited lawmakers; it also shifts further toward lobbyists and others outside government. Lawmaking, like any profession, requires time and practice to do well. Even routine legislation involves considerable expertise, to say nothing of big ambitious policies. Term limits keep lawmakers from building that knowledge, producing representatives who rely even more on the “permanent establishment” of industry interests and their representatives, especially in states with weak legislatures. And without the specific subject expertise that comes with a career of lawmaking, elected officials become far less adept at oversight, impeding democratic accountability of the executive branch.

As for “draining the swamp,” there’s evidence that term limits have worsened the revolving-door problem in states that have them. In Michigan, nearly one-quarter of lawmakers elected under the state’s term limits “ended up either registering as lobbyists or working as consultants or paid advocates.” Critics say the same for Oklahoma, which incidentally produced EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who got around term limits by seeking higher office (not uncommon) and who has a close relationship with the state’s energy interests.

Yes, you may get fresh blood with term limits. But what you get with it is legislative amateurism, short-term stints in which lawmakers can’t develop skills or expertise, and effective, public-spirited officials are forced out on the altar of the new and novel. Washington is already mired in dysfunction and marred by corruption and influence peddling. Term limits would make that worse, robbing Congress—and thus voters—of the ability to course correct, much less check the expansive power of the presidency.

The intuition behind term limits—the reason they’re popular with most Americans—is correct: Washington is broken. But there’s no easy fix for the problem; no one trick that will improve the status quo. And absent radical change to our constitutional architecture, the only path forward is incremental. Thankfully, there are steps we can take to improve Congress, reduce outside influence, and make elections more competitive. They run the gamut from beefing up congressional staff and research services—lessening reliance on lobbyists— and building more robust public and small-dollar financing of campaigns, to opening up our elections with universal voter registration, vote by mail, and robust voting rights, including felon enfranchisement. Redistricting reform matters too: More competitive districts means more competitive elections means a weaker incumbency advantage, or at least one not bolstered by gerrymandering.

There are real problems in the structure of American democracy. The solution is to face and fix those problems head-on rather than lean on an assumed panacea that will hurt more than help, while robbing voters of their right to choose who they want to represent them, and for how long.