When a politician is looking to score some quick political points, there’s a well they consistently dip their bucket into: term limits.
In 2018, President Donald Trump tweeted that he had met with lawmakers and discussed term limits, giving his “full support and endorsement for their efforts.” President Obama wrote in A Promised Land that, as a senator, he “questioned what might happen to me the longer I stayed in Washington, the more embedded and comfortable I became.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has thrice introduced a constitutional amendment to establish term limits for Congress. His rival in the last election, Beto O’Rourke, has said that term limits should be part of voting rights reform.
But… why? Why are term limits so popular?
The Conservative Argument
The Heritage Foundation says term limits are necessary because incumbents have a huge advantage in U.S. elections. Open Secrets reports that incumbent senators generally outperform their challengers when it comes to raising and spending money. Between 2019 and 2020, it took an average of $73 million to unseat a sitting senator and just $19 million to keep a sitting senator in place.
A big reason why it costs so much to successfully challenge sitting lawmakers? Well, they have the ability to arrange spending projects specifically designed to prop up their election chances, a practice known as pork barrel spending. In other words, a senator can direct government funds to his state to create support, getting a big boost to his re-election bid on the taxpayer’s dime.
The Liberal Argument
During a press conference in 2016, Obama remarked that term limits allow “new voices and new ideas [to] emerge.” Obama, who was preparing to hand over power to his successor, was specifically discussing the need for the Democratic Party to go through “some reflection” as it prepared to weather the Trump administration.
Obama’s views on term limits are echoed by other Democrats, like Rep. Ro Khanna, who said in a 2017 press release that Congress was in danger of letting seats “become feudal estates. The turnover rate here in the People’s House is less than European monarchies.” Name recognition alone can entrench candidates, but so too can the power they amass through party infrastructure.
Oops, it’s all nonsense
Khanna’s press release ends with a plea to establish a 12-year term limit, the same as exists in the California legislature. In 2004, the Public Policy Institute of California reviewed that state’s term limits and found that they hadn’t done much at all.
The biggest boost that the authors of the 2004 study found was that term limits helped reduce partisanship. Partisanship, they observed, got worse the longer someone was in the legislature, and the 12-year limit created a kind of ceiling on how partisan you could get.
Beyond that, though, the study was unimpressed. The same kinds of people were elected as before, just more of them. The governor’s power grew sharply because lawmakers lacked a lot of the institutional knowledge to sift through budget bills and oversight rules. Another study followed, finding that spending on California elections was not significantly altered by term limits.
Worse, studies have raised concerns that term limits might actually be a disincentive for incumbents to help their constituents. Lawmakers seeking to move up from state legislatures to Congress often bypass their constituents altogether, making moves to garner the support of donors who will get them into open House seats. Or, aware that their time is limited, they do what’s necessary to secure lobbyist jobs when their final term ends. In their final term, lawmakers skip out on their duties, aware that the result at the next election is the same whether they show up or not. Voters get fatigued by constant ballot changes, depressing turnout.
As Maine Goes
Perhaps the clearest indication that term limits do little is Maine, which adopted term limits by citizen referendum in 1993.
Maine’s term limits were heavily inspired by Rep. John Martin, a Democrat from the far-northern town of Eagle Lake. Martin had been in the legislature for thirty years and had been Speaker of the House for eighteen of those. In 1992, however, one of Martin’s aides was convicted in a ballot fraud scandal. The scandal enraged voters, who saw Martin as proof that the state’s lawmakers were running wild and free without limits.
Maine’s term limit law is straightforward. Lawmakers can serve up to eight years in each house, for a combination of sixteen total years. But unlike most other jurisdictions, Maine’s clock resets after one term, allowing lawmakers to go back to Augusta.
The thing about the reset is it shows a deep flaw in the system: voters kind of like experienced politicians. Republicans are expected to nominate two-term governor Paul LePage as their nominee this year; LePage termed out of office in 2018, but the clock resets, so he can seek an additional two terms beginning in 2022.
Perhaps no one knows this better than incumbent Rep. John Martin. Remember Martin, the guy who kickstarted term limits in Maine? He left the Maine House in 1994, but from 2000 until 2008 he served in the Maine Senate, and he has represented Eagle Lake in the state house nearly continuously since 2008, spare for a single two-year term from 2012 to 2014. Martin’s whopping 42 years in the Maine House of Representatives, plus eight years in the Maine Senate, is a record. Martin, 80, won’t be eligible for re-election this year, although he could run for the Maine Senate if he wanted.
The best argument, then, is that term limits exist to protect the voter from themselves. It’s a rough argument to make, and one that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has called undemocratic. After all, term limits don’t just toss out lawmakers you don’t want. You can’t exempt certain folks from them. They ensure that voters “won’t be able to vote for people they like,” as Sanders said, if those people have reached the end of their term.
Certainly term limits for the presidency and for other offices are reasonable, but term limits for lawmakers rarely, if ever, accomplish the intended objectives. A focus on them comes not from the good they could do but because we often feel powerless to eject entrenched lawmakers. Yet there’s no evidence to suggest that seats change party control: since enacted term limits in 1990, Republicans have won control of the California Assembly just once. In the 2004 and 2006 elections, the total number of seats held by each party in the California Assembly didn’t change at all.
There are better ways to fix a broken legislature. Some Californians, for example, have begun to call for an expansion to the state’s slim, 80-person legislature. Congress was fixed at its current size in 1929, when there was one lawmaker for every 279,000 inhabitants. Under the same calculation, there would be around 1,180 members of the U.S. House of Representatives today, and a larger House is a more representative House.