Explainer: Should Congress Have Term Limits? (Part 2)

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Members' seats in the U.S. House of Representatives

A majority of Americans support putting term limits on Congress, and they may get their wish if Mitt Romney becomes president. But is it a good idea? In the second of three installments, we look at how state legislatures with term limits have fared, and what we might expect to happen if Congress followed suit.

Need to catch up? Check out Part 1.

Term limit laboratories

If states are the laboratories of democracy, then we might look at those that place term limits on their legislators, in order to get a sense of how similar rules would affect Congress. Do they fix the perceived problems with legislative bodies? The influence of money and lobbyists in politics? The out-of-touch-ness of elected officials?

It all boils down to this: do term limits help ensure that the policymakers act out of a sense of responsibility to their constituents, rather than for personal gain? And are those policymakers more or less effective than they would be otherwise?

The case of California

In 1990, California limited members of its Assembly to six years in office, and members of its Senate to eight years. Voters narrowly approved Proposition 140, which initiated an amendment to the state constitution. The winning arguments held that long-term incumbency bred corruption, distorted legislative districts through gerrymandering, and stifled genuine political competition.

But almost 48 percent of voters disapproved of the measure. Stanley Caress, the political science professor who's writing a book about term limits, said there were also strong arguments against term limits—the same kind we hear today.

"They would undermine the effectiveness of legislatures, make legislators particularly dependent upon lobbyists and special interest groups, ruin institutional memory," Caress listed, "and therefore it would be very difficult to pass effective policy."

To an extent, these predictions have come true in California.

A legislature that legislates less

It may surprise you to learn that evaluating a $92.6 billion budget for the eighth-largest economy in the world is a very complex undertaking, the kind that might require significant amounts of experience and expertise.

In California, there's evidence to suggest that mandatory rotation leaves these qualities in relatively short supply.

"You don’t have strong legislative leaders you used to have," Caress said. "The legislature can’t seem to work on its budget very easily. The members don’t know each other, they haven’t been around for a long time, and the coalitions they need to build simply aren’t possible."

A 2004 brief from the Public Policy Institute of California found that the legislature was "less likely to alter the Governor's Budget, and its own budget process neither encourages fiscal discipline nor links legislators' requests to overall spending goals." In other words, the legislature presents less of a check—and less of an alternative—to executive power. (In 2010, the Washington Post's Ezra Klein wrote that this had contributed to California's fiscal crisis: "A guy who was starring in Terminator films as recently as 2003 is now the most seasoned elected official during one of the worst crises California has ever had.")

In general, the legislature gets less done, period. Whether this is a net negative or positive, however, in some ways depends on what kind of government you want, according to Caress.

"If you have the philosophy that government should do less, it’s a positive thing. But if you’re concerned about government solving social problems and taking the lead, then in fact it has made it more difficult for legislatures to do that."

Indeed, term limits advocates over the last two decades tend to come from the former school of thought, that government should do less: congressional Republicans attached them to the Contract With America; leaders of a new pro-term limits SuperPAC identify themselves as conservative; Jim DeMint's term limit amendment doesn't have a single Democratic co-sponsor.

No new breed

There's another snag in the logic of term limits: they don't necessarily replace career politicians with "citizen legislators".

As a California state senator in the early '90s, Quentin Kopp supported the idea of term limits, citing his "belief in the notion of citizen legislators—not career politicians per se, but people who volunteer for electoral public service as a ideal, not an occupation."

The result has been far from what he had anticipated.

"Now every term-limited legislator looks instantly for the next elective office, be it state Senate, Assembly, Board of Equalization, Congress, statewide office, county supervisor or otherwise," Kopp wrote in an editorial last year, explaining why he thinks California should repeal term limits. "That constant turnover causes more time, effort and need for soaring political contributions, and results in inexperienced legislators"

California is peppered with examples of office-hopping. In 1996, Assemblyman Trice Harvey was among the first round of legislators term-limited out of office. He ran for U.S. Congress that same year, unsuccessfully, before landing on California's Agriculture Labor Relations Board.

Daniel Boatwright had been in the legislature since 1972, and he, too, was forced out in 1996. He went on to join a lobbying firm.

Even today, the trend continues. Darrell Steinberg, President of the State Senate, previously served his full six years in the Assembly. Deborah Ortiz, term-limited out of the Senate in 2006, made an unsuccessful run for Secretary of State. She's now Vice President of Government Affairs at a California health care association.

"Career politicians" are still common. Stanley Caress echoed Quentin Kopp's observation. "There's not a new breed we've seen" he said. "They just come in and leave much quicker."
Term limits may do more to ensure rotation among government offices and lobbying firms than rotation among politicians and private citizens.

Term limits still popular

Maybe we don't need term limits. Maybe they snarl the legislative process without doing enough to stem the tide of self-serving public servants—politicians like the self-limiting U.S. Congressman Todd Platts are still an exception, whether or not there's a rule.

And yet, voters in states that have had term limits since the 1990s continue to favor them by a strong margin.

"Efforts to get rid of term limits or soften them have usually been rejected by voters," Dr. Caress found in his research. "They seem to remain popular despite more disruption in most legislatures that have them."

In 2008 there was an effort to lengthen term limits in California. Voters defeated Proposition 93 by a margin of 53-46, although only half as much money was contributed to the campaign in favor of a "no" vote.

In 1990, California voters approved term limits 52-48 at the polls, but that narrow margin of victory belies the fact that opponents of term limits outspent proponents by a ratio of 31 to 1 in their unsuccessful attempt to defeat the legislation.

One way to read such political overspending is that politicians—and those that rely on relationships with them—are more interested in keeping their jobs than executing the will of their constituents. Whether that's true is another question; but to the suspicious private citizen, influence and money wielded by an entrenched political class appear significant threats to popular reforms, itself an argument for the very term limits that were disputed in California.

Polling suggests that whether government accomplishes more or delivers 
budgets on time may rank behind the psychic benefits to an electorate that 

In states with term limits, polling suggests that regardless of political affiliation, whether government accomplishes more or delivers budgets on time may, in voters' minds, rank behind the psychic benefits of curbing the power of elected officials.

What's next

In the next and final installment of this series, we'll take a closer look at the arguments in favor of term limits—some of which are as old as (or older than) the United States—and how different types of communities would be affected by having them at the federal level.