In a recent Instagram poll, we asked you about the political terms and practices you would like to know more about. This article is thanks to your response. Thank you (and please VOTE).
In short, term limits refer to the legal number of years and/or terms that an elected official can hold and serve in that elected office. They are popular among voters across the board but disliked by numerous politicians, and — before we start — the tl;dr of this piece is that there are strong arguments on both sides of the debate. Our aim here is to make those arguments a little more digestible, in order to help you work out where you stand.
Here you can hopefully find out why both sides of the political spectrum find term limits useful, what we know about their effectiveness, and how we can implement them to give people what they want. Doing so can not only help make elections more effective but create incentives for being increasingly accountable to the people politicians are elected to represent.
Term Limits (A Brief Outline)
The original Articles of Confederation (written documents that outline the function of government) initially had term limits, but the Founding Fathers rejected the idea for the Constitution. The 22nd Amendment establishes term limits for the President, no other elected federal position has them. Term limits are universal practice in other executive positions, too, such as governors and mayors (the majority of our largest cities all have established term limits for both mayor and city council).
Currently, there are 15 states with term limits in the US. An additional six states voted for them, too, but those votes were nullified via state legislatures (Idaho in 2002 and Utah in 2003), or by state Supreme Courts (Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming). According to a 2012 poll by Gallup, 75 percent of adults would vote in favor of term limits, with support from 82 percent of Republicans, 79 percent of Independents, and 65 percent of Democrats.
Despite having widespread support by voters, the opposition to term limits has primarily come from politicians themselves. However, some of their arguments raise valid points on experience and crafting legislature.
The Arguments For Term Limits
While term limits are popular among voters, it’s primarily conservative politicians and think-tanks who argue for them. The Heritage Foundation, for example, is one that argues that term limits are “the only way to clean up Congress.”
The key points of its argument state that legislative resistance to implementing term limits is directly in contrast to private citizens' support of them and those that oppose such implementation are current politicians and labor unions. What's more, it argues that having term limits will bring new perspectives and ideas to congress, and reduce incentives for election-related federal spending that gives a platform to members of congress that are primarily concerned with building their own careers.
Considering that term limits are only established for the presidency, studying the effectiveness of them is something we’ve had to assess on a state-level, which, despite their popularity, has come with mixed results.
The Arguments Against Term Limits
Per The Brookings Institution, these are the major arguments for standing against term limits: They restrict who can be on the ballot because they take away the ability to reelect effective lawmakers that are automatically kicked out when their term ends. They are thought to severely decrease policymaking capacity by reducing the number of experienced lawmakers, which in turn also limits the incentive for aspiring politicians to gain the experience and expertise needed in order to build effective policies. And it's suggested that implementing limits isn't useful for minimizing corruption or slowing down the revolving door of lobbyists.
Prominent figures on the left like Bernie Sanders have called term-limits "undemocratic." He also suggested that overturning Citizens United (the political movement that allows individuals and corporations to financially back federal elections) and allowing public funding for congressional elections would enable the average person to run for office without being held to special interests. (FWIW, Sanders supports term limits for Supreme Court judges.)
The Impact Term Limits Have Had
In 2006, John M. Cary of Dartmouth College led a study that found little to suggest that term limits bring in new ideas or a diverse range of representatives, nor did it find any evidence that term limits deter or prohibit "career politicians."
However, it did find that they can change the behavior of how legislators move to accomplish things — because of the limited time-frame they operate within (and the immediacy that brings as a consequence) term limits can have a big impact on speeding up the process of, basically, *getting shit done.* The study also found that any effect suffered by the loss of experienced politicians booted out once their term ends can be compensated with proper support practices, training, and selecting leaders in advance to run.
Elsewhere, the Public Policy Institute of California studied the impact of Proposition 140, which put a six-year term limit on California’s Assembly and an eight-year on their Senate. Prop 140 was passed in 1990, so the study works with historical data but specifically in relation to that specific state.
These were the key takeaways: Less dispute over budget; members still likely to run again for a different position when termed out; minimized pivots to extreme ideologies (it didn't outline a definition for what it means by "extreme," but given the current White House set-up, one could take a wild guess); a decline in staff experience; an improved track record in regards to the aforementioned *getting shit done,* and so forth.
Should We Implement Term Limits?
As you probably gathered reading this post, there are pretty sound arguments on both sides of the debate. So, the question remains: should we implement them? And if yes, how can the current system be improved?
The irony of actually implementing term limits is that the people who would be best at drafting the legislation are often the most experienced politicians, rendering the negotiation process to be a literal limit of their own ongoing career. In an ideal world, term limits would give congressional politicians enough time to learn first-hand the legislative process and make a change, but not long enough they become out of touch with the people they are elected to represent.
Term limits are most likely only effective on a federal level if a number of factors surrounding them are approved, such as:
1) Stop unlimited spending by corporations to deter special interest groups in elections.
2) Implement "reasonable" term lengths so a) politicians aren't pressured into short-term "big wins" that overshadow the needs of the people and b) so politicians can gain enough experience in order to make their work more effective.
3) Limiting the revolving door of former lawmakers becoming lobbyists (aka people that follow the money).
4) Implementing term limits for the Supreme Court to ensure everyone is playing to the same rulebook.
5) Restructuring public and private funding of elections to level the playing field for common citizens to run.
Especially with popularity amongst voters, we eventually have to come to a common ground on why term limits are something people want, as well as how we can accommodate their demands to ensure they're getting the democracy they ask for.
What would you like to learn more about? Let us know in the comments.