When discussing legislative bodies at any level – and most pressingly, at the federal level – a debate rages on about the efficacy of term limits. Some see term limits as the proper tool in order to curtail legislative abuse, bringing legislators in line with the expectations of the public. Others see term limits as either a waste of time or a potentially negative consequence, making things worse for legislatures that are already struggling with discontent and a lack of action. Research makes clear that while term limits might seem like a good idea, there is a tremendous opportunity for downside whenever these sorts of changes are made.
When one listens closely to the debates on term limits, she will often hear that term limits help to keep legislators chained to their constituents. After all, the major problem, these people argue, is that people tend to lose touch with their constituencies over time. They get to Washington, or in the case of state representatives, they get to their capital, and they begin to engage in political one-ups-manship in an effort to further their own causes. The argument then is that if these individuals had term limits, it would be possible to mitigate the effects of having a representative who became completely out of touch with his constituency. Unfortunately the data suggest something very different. In a number of studies, when legislators are term-limited, they become less chained to the needs and wants of their constituency. Wright (2007) wrote in his article that when individuals are term-limited, they are far less likely to be representative of their constituency. In addition, they are less likely to be involved in roll call voting in the first place. Not only are these individuals less likely to represent the people they were sent to represent, but they seem to check out from the entire process. This echoes the sentiment of Carey, et al (2006), who also noticed what they called a “Burkean Shift” in the political landscape. Across the 50 states that they studied, when local legislators had term limits imposed, they simply began to shift their interests away from their constituency and toward some other goal.
If one thinks about why this might be the case, it is relatively easy to understand. Legislators without term limits are always subject to re-election. While the political reality suggests that it takes a lot for an incumbent to lose his or her seat – short of a scandal, of course – the truth is that politicians tend to focus on the thing that is right in front of them. Those who have re-election concerns may not perfectly represent their constituents, but they recognize that there is a cost associated with completely abandoning those individuals. This produces a response in kind, where these legislators at least pay lip service to the people who sent them to the capital. While it may seem like term limits would create a reality where more attentive people would be elected, the data suggest something different, and the policy initiative may have the inverse effect on democracy that it was meant to have.
Miller et al (2011) echo the concerns of others about the shifting balance of power between branches of government that tends to come with term limits. In general, the legislative body becomes much less powerful in comparison to the executive and judicial branches when term limits are imposed. This suggests that under a normal arrangement, there is cache built over time. Legislators have the public on their side, and they are known very well because of their time in office. This means that they can wage political wars against the other parts of the government, keeping the balance of power in check to some extent. Term limits, it seems, undermine the power of the legislative, and in doing so, they disrupt this delicate balance in a way that is difficult for the system to overcome.
It should also be noted that from a practical perspective, term limits may cause legislators to seek out the favor of lobbyists or other special interests. Without term limits, a representative might settle in for a long career in politics. He might feel comfortable with what he is being paid, and he might see no reason to seek other opportunities. A term-limited representative, on the other hand, understands that in two or four or six years, he is going to have to have a new job in order to feed his family. This might cause him to be more beholden to special interest groups in hopes that those groups will extend to him an offer of employment upon the close of his time in the legislature. This may be the reason why so much data suggests that term-limited representatives are seeking interests other than those of their constituency.
The debate over term limits may rage on, but the evidence suggests that they are destructive and not the solution that their proponents think they are. It may seem like a good idea to term limit representatives, especially in an era when congress and legislatures are not very popular. Perhaps the better solution, though, is using the implicit term limits that already exist. That is, having people vote out those individuals who tend to lose sight of the fact that they have been sent to the legislature to represent a certain set of the population.