The Limits of Limits

The Limits of Limits

After 10 years of term limits in some state legislatures, it's becoming clear who the winners are: governors and executive bureaucracies.

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the source: “The Truth About Term Limits” by Alan Greenblatt, in Governing, Jan. 2006; “The Effects of Term Limits on State Legislatures: A New Survey of the 50 States” by John M. Carey et al., in Legislative Studies Quarterly, Feb. 2006.

It’s been a decade since term limits began taking effect in state legislatures, and in the capitals of the dozen states where they are in force, it’s apparent who the big winners have been: the governors and the executive bureaucracies. “The crumbling of legislative power is clear” in those states, one political scientist tells Governing staff writer Alan Greenblatt.

The legislators’ inexperience and lack of relevant knowledge put them at a decided disadvantage vis-à-vis the executive branch, as does the desire of many to land top-level state jobs once their short stints as lawmakers end. Several studies in California and elsewhere have found that term-limited legislators make far fewer changes in governors’ proposed budgets than their predecessors did.  

One southern legislator-turned-lobbyist tells Greenblatt why he often bypasses the legislature and goes directly to agency officials. “There are some legislators who know as much as agency people do,” the lobbyist explains, “but they’re few and far between and they’ll be gone very quickly. Agency heads . . . can outwait and outlast anyone and everyone on the playing field and they have consolidated their power.”

In 1990, voters in California, Colorado, and Oklahoma made their states the first to adopt term limits for lawmakers. Eighteen other states fol­lowed suit, but their numbers were reduced by court reversals and legislative changes of heart. Twelve states now have term limits, and they are sched­uled to go into effect in three others.  

In the old days, legislative leaders often held sway for more than a decade, far longer than the governors usually did. Now the leaders’ time at the helm is fleeting. Freshman legislators in the Florida House have taken to immediately selecting the speaker who will lead them five years hence. But those anointed are essentially lame ducks even before they take office.

A 2002 survey of state legislators by political scientist John M. Carey of Dartmouth College and three colleagues found that those in term-limited chambers were less responsive to their constituents and spent less time securing money and projects for their districts than legislators in other states. By their own accounts at least, the term-limited lawmakers paid more heed to their own consciences and to the needs of the state as a whole—an effect that Carey and his colleagues label a “Burkean shift,” after the 18th-century Anglo-Irish legislator Edmund Burke, who advocated just such a stance.

Some dire predictions made when term limits were introduced have proven off the mark. Lobbyists haven’t gained the upper hand, Greenblatt notes. “Term limits have been a mixed bag for lobbyists, who must introduce themselves to a new, skeptical set of legislators every couple of years. . . . Nor is there much evidence that legislative staff have taken advantage of member turnover to impose their own views on inexperienced legislators.” Staff turnover is often as great as turnover among lawmakers.

Among the legislators, staff, lobbyists, and reporters who work in the state capitals, however, the opinion is “nearly universal . . . that term limits are obstacles to careful legislation and effective over­sight,” reports Green­blatt. “Travel a bit farther from the capital, though, and you get a different point of view.” As political scientist Alan Rosenthal, of Rutgers University, puts it: “The public voted initially for term limits because they don’t like politicians and political institutions. That disfavor has continued.”

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