Limiting the term in office served by elected politicians has been a controversial issue in a many countries since the early 1990s, although not for the same reason. In a number of countries, for example most of Latin America, politicians can only serve one term at a time in an elected office. There are usually no restrictions upon serving in a post for a second time, providing a period out of office has elapsed since the previous term, and politicians are free to stand for other offices instead, so a representative in a state senate might move on to the national parliament and later return to the state senate. In the United States fifteen states have legislatures with term limits.1 Nonetheless legislatures around the world are full of career politicians who have been reelected regularly, sometimes for decades. This seeming dominance of incumbency is seen by those who are opposed to term limits as a natural and desirable part of democratic systems, with legislators who are competent enough to be continuously reaffirmed by the public and whose experience and political acumen, garnered from years of political activity, are invaluable to the effective working of government. Critics of the status quo, however, argue that there is a need for new voices in legislatures, that incumbents are often corrupted by power and compromised by interest groups. These critics contend that by instituting term limits, the problems of the status quo can be solved, and more responsible, accountable legislators will arise. Debates hinge around the right of people to choose who represents them, and on whether term limits will produce more effect politicians.
1 Bowser, Jennie Drage, (2011). "Legislative Term Limits: An Overview", National Conference of State Legislatures,
It is gravely unfortunate that politics has become an accepted career path for citizens of democratic states. It is far better that participation in government be brief. To end politics as a lifetime sinecure, thereby making legislative service a leave of absence, rather than a means of permanently absconding from a productive career in the private sector, requires that there be term limits 1. Without term limits, the temptation to remain in office for life will keep people seeking reelection long after they have accomplished all the legislative good of which they are capable. It does not take long for legislators to become more occupied with their relationships with each other and with lobbyists, than with their constituents. Representative assemblies work best when they function as citizen legislatures, in which people who pursue careers other than politics enter the legislative forum for a brief time to do their country service, and then leave again to reenter society as private citizens2. Such citizen legislators who enter politics to make their mark and then leave are far more desirable than the career politicians of today who focus only on building their own power influence, rather than considering the people they were elected to represent. US states with 'citizen legislatures', where the state legislature is part time with short sessions so allowing its members to hold other jobs, were at the top of freedom indexes. New Hampshire was both the most minimal parliament and the state with most fiscal freedom according to the Ruger-Sorens Index.3
1 Will, George. 1993. Restoration: Congress, Term Limits, and the Restoration of Deliberative Democracy. New York: Free Press.
2 Bandow, Doug. 1995. "Real Term Limits: Now More Than Ever". Cato Institute Policy Analysis.
3 Rugar, William and Sorens, Jason. 2011. "The Citizen Legislature: How Reasonable Limits on State Legislative Salaries, Staff and Session Lengths Keep Liberty Alive" Policy Brief, Goldwater Institute,
If people wish to pursue a career in politics, then it is their right to do so. There is nothing wrong with career politicians so long as they obey the will of their people and accurately represent the desires of their constituents. While there should be no bar to people seeking to enter politics on a temporary basis, placing that form of political participation over a more lasting one makes no sense. Furthermore, career politicians have valuable experience that can be extremely useful in the forming of legislation and the conducting of public business. Term limits destroy this valuable resource by casting people out of the halls of government at a fixed point, regardless of the worth they might still impart to the legislative process.
Incumbency provides a huge election advantage. Politicians almost always win reelection. The frequency with which they win varies over time and between states, but incumbency is always a powerful advantage. This is seen most visibly in the United States Congress of the past 30 years, in which it has become virtually impossible to unseat an incumbent legislator. Legislators are reelected because they have better name recognition both with the electorate and with lobby groups. People have a tendency to vote for whom they recognize, and firms tend to support past winners who will likely continue to benefit their interests. Term limits actually increase voter choice by making elections more competitive and encouraging more candidates to run. In areas where term limits have been instituted there is far higher turnover amongst legislators, giving voters far more choice in who should represent them. In California, the institution of term limits on state legislators caused a rush of retirements, which led to 50 percent more candidates than would otherwise have been expected, as well as a marked increase in the diversity of the backgrounds of those elected. Ultimately, old legislators using election machines to retain power do their country and constituents a disservice. Power is best used when it changes hands over time in order to allow for dynamic new solutions to be mooted in a changing world.
Term-limiting legislators insults the intelligence of the electorate. Individuals can make prudent decisions about who to vote for, and it so happens that that decision is often to keep incumbents in power. If the reason for such high reelection rates is due to an uneducated or disaffected electorate, then the problem is not be solved by simply instituting term limits. Rather, such results mean an effort must be made to educate voters and to fight voter apathy. Neither of those things is accomplished by limiting the choice of the voters.
Power is highly intoxicating; it can corrupt even the most scrupled individual given enough exposure over time. For this reason, power should not be left in the hands of specific individuals for too long. When a politician is firmly entrenched, he may seek to enrich himself at the expense of the public. He may seek to shower benefices on family and allies in order to maintain and strengthen his powerful position. Without term limits legislators often become self-serving individuals, more interested in craving out personal power bases than with serving the people who elected them. Because legislators are so likely to be reelected, lobbyists and special interest groups find the lines of power in states' capitals largely predictable, and are thus able to buy the influence of the permanent power nexuses in the legislature with relative ease1. Term limits serve to limit the ability of individuals to put forward self-serving legislation and to retain power indefinitely 2. Instead, by maintaining term limits, legislators have only a limited time in power, which tends to shift their focus toward genuinely benefiting the public.
People are intelligent enough to recognize whether a representative is benefiting them or not. They will not vote for someone who is using his privileged position in the legislature to enrich himself or build a fiefdom of influence. Rather, legislators will only be able to stay in office so long as they do what their constituents want. If legislators are maintaining their power by other means, such as institutionalized corruption and force, it is not because there are no term limits on them, but rather because of other fundamental problems of government in those states.
A major focus of a legislator hoping to serve another term is on the next election and on vote getting. It is often the case that hard decisions need to be made by legislators, but it is difficult for them to do so when they are fixated on being reelected. Legislators have an incentive to put tough decisions off if they can retain power by doing so. An example of such seemingly perpetual procrastination is observable in the United States Congress's attitude toward social security. The fund is set to become insolvent, by some estimates, in less than two decades, yet congressmen and senators have chosen time and again to put off enacting painful, but necessary reform to the system. They find it easier to delay a decision until the next Congress, preferring their own reelection to the good of the nation. When constrained by term limits, legislators must make the most of their limited time in office, resulting in greater prioritization of difficult decisions and reform1. Furthermore, the need to constantly fight elections places politicians in the pocket of lobby-groups and election supporters to a greater degree, as they will always need to go back to them for support, and thus cannot make decisions that are in the national interest alone. While there will always be some of this behavior, it is curtailed by term limits, as legislators will, in their final term at the very least, not be beholden to as many special interests as they cannot run again. Bolder legislative action is observed from retiring legislators in the United States Congress, for example. When a congressman or senator does not intend to seek reelection, his tendency to vote along strict party lines diminishes substantially. Term limits, just like voluntary retirement, leads legislators to vote more on the basis of principle than on party stance2. The result of this is a more independent legislature, with a greater interest in actually serving the people.
A term-limited legislator suffers from the effects of being a lame duck. A final term legislator will not be able to command the same degree of leverage as one who can potentially serve another term. Building the necessary support for worthy legislation might thus prove far more difficult than it would have had the legislator not been a lame duck. Furthermore, with regard to lobby-group support, a politician on the way out who cannot seek another term has an incentive to favor groups and firms that will place him on their boards, a potentially highly lucrative retirement package for outgoing legislators, paid for often at the expense of the public.
Term limits are flagrantly undemocratic. If a legislator is popular and desired by the people to continue to represent them, then it should be their choice to reelect him. The instituting of term limits assumes voters cannot act intelligently without proper guidance. This is a serious insult to voters' intelligence. The electorate can discern for itself whether a legislator is doing a good job and will vote accordingly. Preventing a potentially popular candidate from standing for reelection simply removes the right from people to make important political decisions. It is not the duty of the state to encourage more candidates to run in elections to replace politicians who are already popular and doing a suitable job1. Should the US people have not been allowed to elect Franklyn D. Roosevelt for his third term? FDR was a very popular and successful president who brought the United States out of depression and won the Second World War and it was those very successes that lead the American people to reelect him. The people, if they have the freedom to choose who should represent them, should have the freedom to choose incumbents, and to do so indefinitely if that is what the popular will demands.
1 Marcus, Andrew. 2010. "Dodd and Other 'Retiring' Democrats Show Why Term Limitsare a Bad Idea". Big Government.
Term limits promote greater choice in candidates and protect democracy1. While people may not be able to vote for a legislator again who has reached his limit of service, they can still vote for a continuation of his policies by voting for his chosen successor or for his political party's candidate. Limiting individual politicians to specified terms, however, prevents them from becoming too powerful and damaging the democratic system through efforts at self-enrichment and influence-peddling.
With term limits, a legislator will, after he enters his final permitted term of office, not have to face the electorate again, meaning he can do whatever wants, to an extent. This encourages corruption and self-enrichment on the part of legislators in their final term of office when they do not need to face the people to answer for poor management. There is likewise less incentive to follow through on election promises to supporters, since their withdrawing support can have little tangible impact on a lame duck. A study into term limits in Brazil found that "mayors with re-election incentives are signi?cantly less corrupt than mayors without re-election incentives. In municipalities where mayors are in their ?rst term, the share of stolen resources is, on average, 27 percent lower than in municipalities with second-term mayors."(Ferraz, 2010) Furthermore, lame duck politicians can devote time to buddying up to businesses and organizations in order to get appointments to lucrative board seats after they leave office. This has often been the case in Western democracies, where former parliamentarians, cabinet ministers, senators, etc. find themselves being offered highly profitable positions upon their retirement (Wynne, 2004). Imposing term limits necessarily increases this sort of behavior, as politicians look more toward their retirement during their final years of office, rather than to the interests of the people.
1 Ferraz, Claudio and Finan, Frederico, (2010). "Electoral Accountability and Corruption: Evidence from the Audits of Local Governments" Berkeley,
2 Wynne, Michael. 2004. "Politics, Markets, Health and Democracy". University of Wolongong.
A politician who has to constantly concern himself with reelection has a much greater likelihood of being beholden to special interest groups and lobbyists than one who is term-limited so will actually engage in more corruption. While a term-limited legislator may suffer to a degree from lame duck status, the need to continuously seek electoral support is far more damaging to his ability to do what is right for the nation. Politicians who are not term-limited will spend more time doing what is popular than what is necessary. It is far better to have a representative who has only a limited time to enact the policies he envisions, so that he actively seeks to implement his vision, rather focusing on the short-term goal of reelection.
The process of drafting legislation and shepherding it through the legislature often requires a delicate and practiced hand, especially when the issue under discussion is of a controversial nature. By forcing politicians out of the legislature on the basis of term limits, the depth of knowledge and experience available to the assembly is reduced, often to its serious detriment. Seasoned politicians are also needed to help newcomers acclimate to the environment of the legislature; something first-time elected individuals are completely unused to. Naiveté on the part of new policymakers who are unused to the system will leave them vulnerable and exploitable. Lobbyists and special interest groups will seek to influence politicians while they develop their first impressions of life in the legislature, and will immediately capitalize upon any perceived vulnerability. Luann Ridgeway a Republican senator in the Missouri senate argues that term limits mean “we rely more on the trustworthiness of those established -- government relations individuals and staff persons -- because we have to”,this would include more taking advice from the long standing lobbyists. Furthermore, legislation often requires lengthy periods of negotiation, that require not only the experienced hand of long-standing legislators, but also the continuity they offer. If legislators are constrained by term limits their time horizons are narrowed causing them to put too much emphasis on near-term, rather than long-term legislation. Clearly, term limits undermine the effective operation of government and deny the legislature an invaluable source of experience and ability.
 Kouser, Thad. 2004. Term Limits and the Dismantling of State LegislativeProfessionalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Legislators may gain skill in maneuvering in the legislative arena with time, but they also gain a propensity for power grabbing and self-advancement. Politicians of long standing use their knowledge of the working of the legislature as much for the lobbyists and interest groups, who they prefer to work with rather than young, inexperienced legislators. The power of lobbyists is magnified by the solidity of the channels of political influence created by high rates of incumbency. Term limits actually serve to restrict the power of interest groups, and instead places emphasis on the production of progressive legislation.
Term limits on legislators serve to exacerbate partisan tensions between political parties1. This is due to several causes. First, the increased iteration of primary elections, caused by politicians being forced out of office by term limits, in which there tends to be low voter turnout, and higher voter apathy when they happen to regularly. This leads to the selection of more conservative candidates from the right, and more radical candidates from the left. These more opposed groups forming large portions of political parties' representation will lead to more tension in the legislature. Second, newly elected politicians are often more likely to readily take the party whip when they enter the legislature. These results in more disciplined voting, which restricts the ability of moderates on either side to build consensuses on legislation. Third, the ability to build consensus and support from other parties relies on experience and deft political acumen, which are usually garnered through lengthy participation in the legislative process.2 Term limits exclude many skilled politicians from being able to use their expertise in the building of such consensus efforts. Fourth, concerns for their post-legislative career can lead to greater partisanship from retiring legislators. This is due to their need to court appointments to positions at party-affiliated, or party-leaning, think tanks, and on corporate boards favorable to their party. All of these factors lead to a less cooperative legislature when term limits are instituted.
1 Marcus, Andrew. 2010. "Dodd and Other 'Retiring' Democrats Show Why Term Limitsare a Bad Idea". Big Government.
2 Kouser, Thad. 2004. Term Limits and the Dismantling of State Legislative Professionalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
The dynamics of party primaries are not the same in all jurisdictions, and efforts at promoting moderate and capable candidates can still be made after the institution of term limits. Furthermore, new politicians may in fact be more willing to work on bipartisan projects, as they are not inculcated in the culture of confrontation that predominates between political parties in many legislatures. For this reason politicians of longer standing might actually be a hindrance to bipartisan compromise. It is far better to allow for a preponderance of political views by making the legislature more open. The best way to accomplish this is clearly to impose term limits.
Bandow, Doug. 1995. "Real Term Limits: Now More Than Ever". Cato Institute Policy Analysis.
Chan, Sewell. 2008. "Debating the Pros and Cons of Term Limits". New York Times.
Green, Eric. 2007. "Term Limits Help Prevent Dictatorships". America.gov.
Scherer, Michael. 2010. "Washington's Time for Bipartisanship: Retirement". Time.
Rugar, William and Sorens, Jason. 2011. "The Citizen Legislature: How Reasonable Limits on State Legislative Salaries, Staff and Session Lengths Keep Liberty Alive" Policy Brief, Goldwater Institute,
Will, George. 1993. Restoration: Congress, Term Limits, and the Restoration of Deliberative Democracy. New York: Free Press.
Bandow, Doug. 1995. "Real Term Limits: Now More Than Ever". Cato Institute Policy Analysis.
Coleman, Emily and Bushnel, Michael, (2009). "Legislators attribute heightened partisanship to term limits", Missourian, 16th May 2009,
Ferraz, Claudio and Finan, Frederico, (2010). "Electoral Accountability and Corruption: Evidence from the Audits of Local Governments" Berkeley,
Kouser, Thad. 2004. Term Limits and the Dismantling of State Legislative Professionalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Marcus, Andrew. 2010. "Dodd and Other 'Retiring' Democrats Show Why Term Limitsare a Bad Idea". Big Government.
Wynne, Michael. 2004. "Politics, Markets, Health and Democracy". University of Wolongong.