Term Limits Are Overrated

During times of congressional gridlock and loss of faith in lawmaking, a variety of government reforms are usually proposed. Term limits on elected officials are always one such popular reform. In fact, 75% of Americans want to impose term limits on their elected officials. Advocates for term limits argue that a regular rotation of elected officials—limited by how many terms they can serve—will make elected offices more democratic, legislatures more functional, and politics less corrupt. Unfortunately, many well-intentioned government reforms fail to solve the problems they address, and sometimes they even exacerbate them. Term limits are no exception. Imposing term limits on elected officials makes government less functional and more corrupt.

Although imposing term limits on members of congress is illegal for now, many states currently impose term limits on their state legislators and governors. For example, state representatives in both California and Michigan are limited to three terms; state senators are limited to just two. Governors in California cannot serve longer than eight years. My home state of Virginia has an even more bizarre restriction on governors: they can serve unlimited terms, but those terms cannot be consecutive.

Presidential term limits are a fairly recent addition—becoming law in 1951. The law’s conception was largely motivated by partisanship. During Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign for a fourth term as president, opposing Republicans in congress began drafting a constitutional amendment to limit the president to a maximum of two terms in office. Once Republicans took over control of congress, the amendment was passed. A few years later in 1951, it was ratified. President term limits had become largely bipartisan.

Many view term limits as a noble restriction, often citing George Washington choosing not to run for reelection after serving only two terms as a paragon of political virtue. However, Washington’s situation was unique. The American experiment, along with it’s provision for peaceful transition of power, was in its infancy. Washington’s decision was necessary to quickly demonstrate the constitution at work—the fulfillment of the American enlightenment project. Over two hundred years later, term limits in both law and tradition are unnecessary—even damaging.

Term Limits Make Government Less Functional

Term limits transfer political power away from elected officials onto unelected staff. No representative can be an expert on everything. Therefore, all elected officials rely on a permanent sub-layer of government in order to legislate effectively. This sub-layer includes legislative staff, policy advisors, and lobbyists. Newly elected officials are uniquely reliant on on this layer of government in order to learn the logistics of crafting and passing legislation. Legislators must, as the saying goes, “learn where the bodies are buried.” When elected officials are restricted from staying in office for extended periods of time, they are prohibited from becoming lawmaking experts. In many cases, they are simply not given enough time to become adept at governing. Therefore, they are forced to rely more heavily on unelected career professionals for assistance and expertise. With term limits, the unelected layer of government often becomes more influential in governing than the officials who are actually held accountable to citizens. 

Term limits also sabotage legislative leadership. Lawmakers in positions of leadership, such as House Speakers, Majority Leaders, Whips, and Committee Chairpersons need to be significantly more experienced than the lawmakers they lead. Term limits create a governing body whose leaders are barely more seasoned than recently elected officials. This makes legislating less efficient and more chaotic.

Term limits also restrict an elected official’s vision. Lawmakers restricted to short tenures in office are not able to develop strategic long-term goals because they will not be in office to carry those goals to their conclusions. Instead they are only forced to pursue progress that can be achieved in a limited amount of time. 

Term Limits Make Government More Corrupt

Term limits encourage elected officials to value private sector prospects over public service. Well-intentioned political commentators often lament career politicians without actually understanding the downsides to the alternative. If elected officials are not allowed to dedicate their careers to public service, they will dedicate their attention elsewhere. Representatives not bound by term limits can focus on adequately representing their constituents in order to ensure their continued reelection. If a representative is bound by a term limit, they are incentivized to secure future income as soon as they’ve won their last allowed election. The demand for lucrative post-government careers and supplemental income increases with term limits. If you oppose the political revolving door, you should oppose term limits. 

Term limits also remove the protection against corruption that reelection provides. Although it is certainly true that corrupt representatives can be reelected over and over, reelection will generally deter the most blatant corruption. Elected officials who have the option of continual reelection will seek to minimize any appearance of corruption in order to secure future reelections. With unlimited terms, representatives will always be subject to future voter accountability—with the exception of retirement. Representatives who are not eligible for reelection are encouraged to pursue corrupting behavior with the knowledge that they no longer need to earn the widespread support of their constituents. Also, incumbents without term limits are subject to continual primary and general election challenges from political opponents who also hold the representative accountable—even if for partisan reasons. Elected officials with term limits will rarely face such challenges, if ever, due to their inability to seek continual reelection.

Term Limits Are Not The Solution

It is tempting to advocate for term limits whenever a hated elected official is reelected for the fifth time. However, the system is not the problem, and term limits are not the solution. In fact, term limits would make political problems worse. Therefore, if the candidate you support for office keeps losing to the elected official who has been in office for twenty years, the solution is not to demand term limits. The solution is to get better at winning elections. 

Brandon Clarkson is the Editor in Chief of Sojourn Review. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Brandon Clarkson