At a campaign appearance Tuesday in Colorado Springs, Donald Trump echoed Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” by calling for a constitutional amendment imposing term limits on Congress. As his crowd reportedly went wild, Trump claimed that “Decades of failure in Washington and decades of special interest dealing must and will come to an end.” Trump’s campaign even created a new hashtag, #DrainTheSwamp.
Term limits have been an attractive idea as long as democracy has existed. One of the ancient Athenian legislatures, the Boule, imposed one-term limits on its members, with Aristotle arguing for a rotation of politicians that featured “All over each and each in turn over all.” Members of the first American Congress under the Articles of Confederation faced term limits, though the Constitution’s framers — career politicians themselves — eliminated this provision in order to create a more muscular Congress.
Veterans of the last round of debate over term limits will remember that they were part of Gingrich’s 1994 Contract but stalled at the federal level the next year when a vote in the House to impose 12-year limits on service in Congress fell short of a two-thirds majority. Yet the term-limits movement found much success in the states, and we can look there for clear evidence of their impacts.
Twenty-one states passed limits, which are now in place in 15 state legislatures. Academics have studied them intensively, by comparing states with term limits to those without, by tracking legislative behavior before and after the imposition of limits, and by combining these approaches to see whether term limits set states on a different path than states without the reform. A clear scholarly consensus has emerged on many of their effects — or lack thereof.
First, term limits would not “drain the swamp” of Washington. They would simply recirculate the water. A host of studies have found — perhaps surprisingly — that implementing term limits has not changed either the characteristics of the politicians who inhabit state legislatures or the process that brings them there.
Though they have opened up more seats, term limits have not made state elections any more competitive. They have also not magically removed ambition from politicians. State legislators today appear to be just as careerist as their predecessors before term limits, with the limits simply channeling their political ambitions in different directions: lobbying, executive branch jobs and running for other offices.
Term limits have also failed to open up more opportunities to female or minority candidates, with a few notable exceptions. For better or worse, the politicians who come to state capitols today look much like the term-limited veterans they replaced. As Gary Moncrief, Lynda Powell and Tim Storey concluded in their study of the composition of legislatures, “The notion that term limits will sweep out the old politicians is true (almost by definition), but the idea that term limits will sweep in a new breed is not.”
And what happens when term limits put rookie lawmakers in a statehouse? They lack legislative experience. According to surveys of legislators, statehouse observers and interest groups, members elected after term limits have less institutional knowledge than their predecessors and have less expertise on policy or the political process.
It also appears that partisan conflict — which was already strong in most U.S. states — has sharpened as term limits have erased legislators’ common pasts and shared futures. A clear measure of this is that the majority party becomes more likely to shut the minority out of the lawmaking process.
Finally, with shorter time horizons in office, legislators’ views of their role as representatives have changed in important ways: They are less likely to be contacted by their constituents or work on their behalf, and they are more likely to view themselves as trustees who should follow their conscience rather than delegates who must follow the voters’ bidding. Whether this is good or bad depends on your view of the role of representatives in a democracy.
It is also open to debate whether term limits have improved or compromised the legislative products coming out of state capitols. After term limits, states are less likely to pass innovative legislation. Innovation brings risk, but is also fundamental to the role of states in the federal system.
The strongest overall trend in the impact that term limits have on laws is that they have brought a fundamental shift in power from the legislative to the executive branch. When legislative terms are limited, governors and their agency staff fill the power vacuum.
Budgets are much more likely to reflect executive branch priorities after term limits. More generally, multiple surveys and case studies show that “one of the clearest effects of term limits has been to weaken legislatures at the expense of executives.”
While a shift in power toward the executive may be attractive to a presidential candidate like Trump, it is one reason for the backlash against term limits in many states. Courts in four states have invalidated term limits, legislators in Idaho and Utah repealed them, and now voters in California and Arkansas have lengthened the limits that they had placed on their legislators.
Term limits are an ancient idea that ebbed and flowed in popularity, but it is clearly not the panacea that Trump has promised.
Thad Kousser is professor and department chair in the department of political science at the University of California, San Diego. A longer review of the literature cited in this piece can be found in Kousser’s “Term Limits and State Legislatures” in Democracy in the States: Experiments in Election Reform.