Term Limits Lessons for Campaign Reform

By Patrick Basham
August 31, 2001
Eleven years after the first successful initiative, term limits have affected more than 700 legislative seats in 11 states. At a time of anticipation over the reform of our campaign system, the term limits experiment has much to tell us.

Lesson One. Term limits stimulate political competition. That is accomplished in a variety of ways, from increasing the number of open seats and special elections to lowering the reelection rates of incumbents. Many former incumbents return to private life, and a significant number run for other offices, thereby stimulating political competition at other levels. There is also evidence to suggest that campaigns may be less costly in a term-limited electoral environment. Under term limits, California’s state campaign spending since 1992 is 44 percent lower than from 1984 to 1988.

Lesson Two. Term limits increase legislative diversity. The prospect of shorter political careers is also changing the characteristics of people who choose to seek public office, encouraging political participation by nonprofessional politicians. Hence, the occupational makeup of state legislatures is gradually moving away from the traditional preponderance of ex-lawyers and ex-political aides. In California in 1995 there were only 3.4 percent self-described full-time state legislators, down from 36 percent in 1986, and three times more legislators are now business people than were previously.

Making the legislature closer to the private sector also familiarizes legislators with the complex consequences of laws and regulations. Overall, a state legislature composed of average citizens is a legislature that looks more like America (California?) and less like a political class of arrogant and ambitious politicians intent on self-aggrandizement.

Greater occupational diversity is paralleled by greater gender and racial diversity. As predicted by proponents, the number of successful female and minority candidates has risen. Female candidates seem to find it easier to gain entry to term-limited legislatures than to non-term-limited legislatures and are more likely to gain leadership positions in high-turnover legislatures. The same is true for minority candidates. A recent survey of the term-limited Michigan legislature found a 42 percent increase in female state House members and a 65 percent increase in African-American state House members.

Lesson Three. Term-limited legislatures undergo positive institutional changes. As institutions, they become more merit based and less governed by an outdated seniority system. Term limits eliminate the possibility of entrenched legislative leaders dominating a legislative chamber. Leadership positions (especially that of Speaker) become less powerful as a more decentralized power structure evolves in response to the growing independence of term-limited freshmen legislators. Generally speaking, freshman legislators tend to ask tougher questions of bureaucrats and demand a higher level of performance from government agencies than did their predecessors.

Has the alleged loss of knowledge and experience dealt a devastating blow to the term-limited state legislatures? The evidence accumulated to date suggests that the fears of critics are unwarranted. In many instances, the loss of institutional memory, legislative knowledge, and political experience has fostered a more energetic, more ideological, and more effective deliberative body. There is little evidence to suggest that (contrary to the predictions of critics of term limits) the bureaucracy, the interest group lobbyists, or the legislative staffs have filled the “experience void” to the detriment of state-level democracy or public policy.

Lesson Four. Term limits act as a natural campaign finance reform. Term limits diminish the value of a legislative seat to lobbyists and the special interests they represent in state capitals. That reduces the incentive for lobbyists to raise and to distribute the large “soft money” contributions so disliked by the political establishment. In states as dissimilar as Maine, Michigan, and Ohio there is evidence that lobbyists are unsettled by the term limits-induced need to build new political relationships from scratch.

Lesson Five. Term limits improve the quality of legislation. The continual infusion of fresh blood into state legislatures is improving public policy. By mandating frequent legislative turnover, term limits are bringing new perspectives to state legislatures, reducing the concentration on reelection, and thereby diminishing the incentive for wasteful election-related pork barrel spending that flourishes in a careerist legislative culture.

There are clear indications that term limits foster institutional settings that are favorable to smaller government. Studies show that the longer an individual stays in office, the greater his support for increased government spending. Limiting terms may lead to limited government, or at least a smaller government than would have existed in their absence. A pattern is developing across the term-limited states. In Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Montana, and Ohio, the composition of the legislature is evolving from higher spending professional legislators to more fiscally conservative citizen legislators.

In 1990, Oklahoma became the first state to term limit its legislators. Eleven years later a majority of term-limited states are experiencing campaigns to repeal those laws. Nonetheless, the evidence says we should be extending, rather than ending, the term limits experiment.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.