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Term limits are popular. There is little evidence they are effective.

July 31, 2019

It is quite common for politicians, especially those running for the Executive to pontificate about term limits. It's a sensible political strategy since the idea is extremely popular with voters. Polls in recent years have found support for terms limits for the US Congress as high as 82 percent. 

 

The discussion entered the Kentucky Governor's race yesterday with one candidate proposing to limit Kentucky House members to four consecutive terms and Kentucky Senate members to two consecutive terms. 

 

A movement in the 1990's led to the adoption of term limits in 21  states led by California, Colorado, and Oklahoma in 1990. Nebraska was the most recent state to implement term limits in 2000. As of this year, 15 states have term limits, including the aforementioned as well as Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, and South Dakota.

 

What Does the Research Say? 

Those 15 states have provided a great deal of data for researchers on how term limits impact state legislatures, with little evidence that it produces the positive results that advocates desire. The most comprehensive studies, titled The Effects of Term Limits on State Legislatures led by Jon M. Carey of Dartmouth College, Richard G. Nemi and Lynda W. Powell of Rochester University, and Gary F. Moncrief at Boise State University provides tremendous insight on three different categories. 

 

Compositional

Researchers found virtually no difference in the composition of the legislature, contrary to the desire of advocates. There were: 

- No difference in family incomes

- No difference in religious affiliation

- No difference in political ideology. Despite the talking point that term limits will help reduce partisanship, there is "no evidence that term limits changed the ideological makeup of legislatures or even the candidate pool from which they are selected."

 

Behavioral

There were, however, behavioral effects. The researchers tested how legislators spent their time in term limit states versus non-term limit states. Here are some of the findings:

- There is "no appreciable decline in the priority and energy devoted " to campaigning and fundraising. 

- Legislators in term limit states reported spending LESS time with constituents and on constituent issues "as soon as term limits are passed." 

- Legislators in term limit states are more inclined to favor "their own conscience and the interest of the state over those of the district." 

 

Institutional

The research found a significant effect on the overall balance of power: the weakening of the legislative branch

- Governors in term limit states were regarded as more powerful relative to their legislative branches than governors in states without term limits

- Bureaucrats in term limit states were likewise viewed as more powerful relative to the legislative branch. 

 

The Joint Project on Term Limits, a project between the National Conference of State Legislatures, Council of State Government, and the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, has also done extensive research on term limits with equally interesting findings. 

  • Turnover- "The average turnover for all house chambers in 2004 was 20.6 percent, compared to 37.1 percent in term limited house chambers." 

  • Who Gets Elected- "One change that is certainly a result of term limits is that the legislature has become a rung on the career ladder for many elected officials. An increasing number of new legislators come to office with local or county legislative experience, and more choose to seek other elective office when their terms expire, rather than retiring from politics." 

  • Legislative Leaders- "Leaders rise to the top more quickly than before, but stay for a briefer period and wield less influence than in the past."

  • Committees- Most interviewees report that committees are weaker and less collegial under term limits. 

  • Staff- Influence of legislative staff grows under term limits. 

 

So, What Would It Mean for Kentucky? 

Results obviously vary by location as there are vast differences in size and relevant issues between states like California and South Dakota. Kentucky, which already noted as having a strong executive branch, would almost certainly experience a weaker legislative branch if term limits were in place. There is not a great deal of scholarship to support many of the ambitions of advocates on this issue and potentially severe pitfalls. There is no reason to believe that any of the common findings noted by Carey and others would be different in Kentucky if term limits were enacted.

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