Term limits are not the answer to a lack of government accountability

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Term limits are a perfunctory call when the electorate perceives career politicians not held to account result in government inaction and ineptitude. In the 1990s 21 states adopted term limits limiting the number of terms state legislators could serve. Of these 21 initiatives, four were thrown out by the state supreme court as unconstitutional and a further two were repealed by legislatures. That leaves 15 U.S. states which impose term limits on officeholders. No new states have adopted term limits since 2000.

However, that does not prevent term limits from being a popular option of the American electorate as well as some politicians. in 2013 Gallup found that 75% of national adults polled would vote “for” term limits. According to a recent poll from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, 80% of Illinoisans support term limits. Terms limits have become an important election issue for Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner. Here is a political ad on term limits featuring the governor:

The ad bemoans a broken system beset by career politicians who are not accountable to their constituents. Term limits are needed so these politicians cannot simply “sit in office for 30 years”. It concludes with a call from the Governor to visit fixillinois.com and sign the term limits petition. The website details the problem similarly:

“Insiders and special interests dominate the state. And too many politicians will do anything to hang on to power. Decades of mismanagement, corruption and insider deals have devastated Illinois.

“We need a new path forward. Illinoisans from both sides of the aisle agree the current system only benefits the politically connected. It’s time to limit the insiders’ power by enacting term limits. To bring back Illinois, we need to start by changing the system. It’s time to fix Illinois.”

There is also a section labeled “A History of Career Politicians in Illinois.”

This call for term limits seemingly relies on the assumption that for officeholders reelection is the primary goal. Politicians do not want to serve the people, politicians are in office in order to serve themselves. The problem is that in many cases this isn’t true. In fact, constituent evaluations of officeholders depends on legislative responsiveness. This is especially true concerning constituency service. Without the ability and capability to serve their constituents politicians could not get reelected. This does, however, point to the idea that “Americans hate Congress but love their own congressman”. The legislature as body gets nothing done while your individual member of the legislature gets things done for you. Gets things done because it gets them reelected.

Thereby, if that reelection incentive is taken away politicians will have greater motivation to work for the greater good rather than for individual constituents. Research indicates that overall this supposed effect holds. Term limits “have measurable impact on certain behaviors and priorities reported by legislators in the survey…whereby term-limited legislators become less beholden to the constituents in their geographical districts and more attentive to other concerns”. They also limit the power of the legislature, meaning the power of the executive branch over legislative outcomes increases. As a result, public satisfaction with legislative outcomes would be largely dependent on satisfaction with the executive. In Illinois, only 33% of likely voters approve of Governor Rauner.

Research has also provided empirical evidence that term limits can increase party polarization, have a negative effect of state fiscal policy performancedo not effect the composition of who is elected and have a null effect on government spending. Furthermore, taking away the election incentive via term limits can have a negative effect on politician performance. Reelection increases electoral accountability and incentivizes candidates towards voter welfare. Additionally, later-term incumbents are more likely to be competent because they have survived reelection and have greater experience in office. Under reelection-eligible incumbents “economic growth is higher and taxes, spending, and borrowing costs are lower”.

Term limits are not measures of governmental accountability, they are measures of executive power and influence. It is the executive branch who most benefits from term limits, not the electorate. The United States Constitution already provides a measure of government and representative accountability, regular elections.



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