Policy Analysis No. 490

Defining Democracy Down: Explaining the Campaign to Repeal Term Limits

By Patrick Basham
September 30, 2003

Executive Summary

A campaign to place term limits on elected officials swept the country in the 1990s. Since then, however, a concerted effort has been made to undo the restrictions imposed by term limits. This paper examines the incentives behind the campaign to repeal term limits at the state and local levels. Particular attention is paid to recent experience in California, Idaho, and New York City. Career politicians, senior bureaucrats, and special interest groups are intent on overcoming clearly articulated voter intent on this issue.

The repeal campaigns are not grassroots affairs. Typically, they are initiated, funded, and managed by career legislators, legislative staff, bureaucrats, and lobbyists. Legislative opposition to term limits is bipartisan. Term-limited legislatures undergo many positive institutional changes that are unsettling for career politicians. Absent term limits, it is unlikely that the currents of public opinion will rock the career politician’s electoral boat.

Some career politicians oppose term limits on ideological, outcome-based grounds. They correctly assume that term limits produce both legislators and legislative incentive structures that are inherently more inclined toward more limited government. The principal concern of legislative staff is that the relatively rapid turnover of legislators will make it harder to build career-length relationships with legislators.

In many instances, senior bureaucrats’ fiefdoms are protected in state and local budgets written by career legislators with whom they have enjoyed mutually beneficial long-term relationships. Freshman term-limited legislators tend to ask tougher questions of bureaucrats and demand a higher level of performance from government agencies. Lobbyists can no longer rely on informal, long-lasting friendships with senior members who can exert major influence over a particular piece of legislation.

Efforts to repeal term limits have failed because they have been led by those who are seemingly intent on preserving their professional advantages and institutional perks regardless of “common good” considerations. Only once have such efforts passed voter inspection.

A great deal is at stake with the repeal of term limits. Without term limits, a state’s political infrastructure risks stagnation. Term limits offer state taxpayers hope for an end to endless spending and taxing.

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Patrick Basham is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Representative Government.