Defining Democracy Down: Explaining the Campaign to Repeal Term Limits

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A campaign to place term limits on electedofficials swept the country in the 1990s. Sincethen, however, a concerted effort has been madeto undo the restrictions imposed by term limits.This paper examines the incentives behind thecampaign to repeal term limits at the state andlocal levels. Particular attention is paid to recentexperience in California, Idaho, and New YorkCity. Career politicians, senior bureaucrats, andspecial interest groups are intent on overcomingclearly articulated voter intent on this issue.

The repeal campaigns are not grassrootsaffairs. Typically, they are initiated, funded, andmanaged by career legislators, legislative staff,bureaucrats, and lobbyists. Legislative oppositionto term limits is bipartisan. Term-limitedlegislatures undergo many positive institutionalchanges that are unsettling for career politicians.Absent term limits, it is unlikely that the currentsof public opinion will rock the career politician'selectoral boat.

Some career politicians oppose term limits onideological, outcome-based grounds. They correctlyassume that term limits produce both legislatorsand legislative incentive structures thatare inherently more inclined toward more limited government. The principal concern of legislativestaff is that the relatively rapid turnover oflegislators will make it harder to build career-lengthrelationships with legislators.

In many instances, senior bureaucrats' fiefdomsare protected in state and local budgetswritten by career legislators with whom theyhave enjoyed mutually beneficial long-term relationships.Freshman term-limited legislatorstend to ask tougher questions of bureaucratsand demand a higher level of performance fromgovernment agencies. Lobbyists can no longerrely on informal, long-lasting friendships withsenior members who can exert major influenceover a particular piece of legislation.

Efforts to repeal term limits have failed becausethey have been led by those who are seeminglyintent on preserving their professional advantagesand institutional perks regardless of "commongood" considerations. Only once have such effortspassed voter inspection.

A great deal is at stake with the repeal of termlimits. Without term limits, a state's politicalinfrastructure risks stagnation. Term limits offerstate taxpayers hope for an end to endless spendingand taxing.

Patrick Basham

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