Term Limits and Political Science

The literature on term limits is not a favorable one.

Some recommended reading by Seth Masket at Mishchiefs of Factions: Why Political Science Doesn’t Like Term Limits.

Masket notes numerous bad effects (with links to studies) created by term limits to include:

  • They increase legislative polarization
  • They decrease legislators’ expertise and capacity (which weakens legislatures and increases the power of executives)
  • They don’t reduce time in office all that much
  • They don’t reduce campaign spending
  • They don’t increase diversity

More at the link.

FILED UNDER: US Politics, , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Kit says:

    The bad old days of pork-barrel politics, and deals made in smoky rooms by chummy career politicians seemed to cry out for reform and sunlight. That was a mistake, as it turns out that a bit of corruption greases the wheels of politics. Now big money calls the tune.

  2. Jay L Gischer says:

    Term limits have produced no noticeable increase in the quality of legislation by the California Assembly, but it forced Willie Brown out of the Speakership. Which was the intended result.

    A powerful and effective legislator is going to always annoy the opposition, which generates interest in term limits.

  3. Kurtz says:

    I argued this in another thread. I think an age limit for starting a term puts a hard cap on the length of service. But a young, talented legislator can still have a long career.

  4. gVOR08 says:

    @Jay L Gischer: Yup. Term limits became a thing at the national level when Republicans were out and hoped it might provide a wedge to get in. Now that Republicans are in, it persists largely because conservatives believe their own bullspit.

  5. Tyrell says:

    There used to be s house member who ran on term limits. Then proceeded to stay in for eight terms.
    “Vote them all out”

  6. Andy says:

    Term limits definitely have downsides (especially if the limits are short). But so do uncompetitive elections.

    Absent reforms that make elections actually competitive, I’m not sure what alternative there is to address the issue of near lifetime incumbency and the sclerosis and corruption it often brings.

  7. Barry says:

    @Kit: ‘The bad old days of pork-barrel politics, and deals made in smoky rooms by chummy career politicians seemed to cry out for reform and sunlight. That was a mistake, as it turns out that a bit of corruption greases the wheels of politics. Now big money calls the tune.”

    The thing is that we are still highly corrupt, but it seems to be normalized now.

    As somebody put it, in the Bad Old Days people were dispatched to collect bags of cash; in the Clean New Days, they dispatch the office intern to pick up envelopes of checks.

  8. Kathy says:

    We can borrow a page from the Roman Republic, and establish a continuous term limit.

    Say we set a limit of four terms for the House and two for the Senate. after that, the people who’ve served these terms can run for the same type of office again only after four years in the House and six in the Senate (that is, a person who’s served in the House their 4 terms in district A, can’t run for any other district for four years).

  9. Mister Bluster says:

    Stop me if you have heard this before:

    15 of our United States have legislative term limits.
    If anyone can demonstrate that legislation passed through these chambers is somehow wiser or more efficient than bills passed in the 35 other non term limited States I will consider that term limits may be useful at the Federal level.
    As a point of information it is here noted:
    The following six legislatures have had their term limits nullified:
    Idaho Legislature: the Legislature repealed its own term limits in 2002.
    Massachusetts General Court: the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overturned term limits in 1997.
    Oregon Legislative Assembly: the Oregon Supreme Court ruled term limits unconstitutional in 2002.
    Utah State Legislature: the Legislature repealed its own term limits in 2003.
    Washington State Legislature: the Washington Supreme Court voided term limits in 1998.
    Wyoming Legislature: the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled term limits unconstitutional in 2004.

    From January 3, 2009 till January 3, 2011 the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch of the United States Government were both controlled by the Democratic Party.
    From January 3, 2017 till January 3, 2019 the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch of the United States Government were both controlled by the Republican Party.
    As far as I know neither party did anything to take action that would have resulted in limiting their own terms or the terms of their successors.
    Maybe they just did not want to.
    Term limits restrict my political freedom. Apparently advocates for term limits think I am too stupid to decide who I want to vote for and want to deny me that right after said candidate has been in office for an arbitrary number of terms.
    Who do these do gooders think they are? I don’t tell them who they can not vote for.

  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    The system is failing and term limits will do nothing to revive it. We have become increasingly unrepresentative, with cow states able to outvote inhabited states despite having a tiny fraction of the population. We have a POTUS who got fewer votes than his opponent and a major political party that openly solicits help from foreign powers to ensure future repeats. And we have a population not just divided by race or gender but by reality.

    We have effectively no way to save a failing system because we are hobbled by that same system and unable to effect repairs. And nothing can save the country from the voters. We have a sclerotic system and delusional voters. The stench of corruption in government, in business, in parts of the media and in the population as well, is nauseating.

    This is what decline looks like – faction, corruption, unchecked dishonesty, greed re-labeled as a virtue and kindness dismissed as naive, unapologetic careerism. Trump has mainstreamed all that is contemptible in American politics, he’s normed corruption and the country is letting him. Where are we as a country a hundred years from now?

    Term limits? You got pancreatic cancer so take a couple aspirin.

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    I noticed one deficiency of term limits unmentioned in your limits: not only would it increase the power of executives it would greatly increase the power of permanent staffs.

    Actually, I’m less interested in the negatives in your list than I am in corruption. Is there anything in the scholarship about the effect of term limits on corruption? I grew up in a family of politicians and was surrounded by state, local, and federal politicians from birth. Yes, lengthy tenure increases the knowledge and ability of the officeholder to get things done but it also inevitably creates a sense of entitlement in which the officeholder conflates his or her own good with the public good. I can think of no other practical way to reduce that than term limits.

  12. Kurtz says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    We have a party ideologically inclined to think that injecting money into anythig and everything improves function. The ideas of greater good and public trust do not exist in-themselves. Rather, they are an aggregated consequence of the self-interest of individuals.

    I suspect many know this is not true. That’s why, as I have pointed out before, the justification for market-fundamentalism has been couched in Capitalism as a moral system.

    One of the hidden tensions within this view is that science, which for them includes Economics, is a value-neutral process.

  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    They read Adam Smith and skip over all the talk of virtue. Pretty much how they read the Bible.

  14. Kathy says:

    Complex problems are complex because they include many factors. this being the case, usually no one simple solution, one which addresses one or a few factors, will solve the problem.

    Therefore one cannot solve corruption, partisanship, under-representation, the cost of campaigns, the influence of money, and the sticky goop plaguing your saucepan all by declaring term limits.

    The first problem to solve, IMO, is the belief that there is one simple solution to all complex problems.

  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Tyrell: The guy who ran against Tom Foley in the Congressional District that Spokane is in ran on promising to limit himself to two terms in office–only to discover at the end of his second term that ‘he hadn’t accomplished all that he needed to and was just starting to be effective as a legislator,’ so he needed to break his promise. 🙁

    I believe his name was Nethercutt, but I’m not sure anymore. Lived in Spokane 30 years ago.

  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds: My experience is that the don’t read Adam Smith or The Bible. The listen to people who tell them what Adam Smith and the Bible say. It’s how you get the surveys that show that most people can’t tell Adam Smith from Karl Marx or the sayings of Jesus from the Analects of Confucius or the philosophy of John Stuart Mill.

  17. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: Salt will remove the sticky goop from your saucepans without scratching the surface really well. But term limits are not anywhere near as good for that, you’re right.

  18. Kurtz says:


    I respect your desire. But “vote them all out” is a meaningless statement. We get to vote for exactly 3 of the 535 US legislators.

    Even if there was 100% turnover in the House this election and the Senate over the ’20,’ 22, and ’24 cycles, what would change? The names would change, but the behavior likely would not.

    For your suggestion to have any value, it would have to be flaws in the people we elect to office, rather than the system influencing their behavior.

  19. Kathy says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    The main rallying cry of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 was “Effective Suffrage. NO REELECTION!” And damned if that didn’t turn out to be the case. Some state legislatures (ie rubber stamps for the PRI) allowed reelection, as did some local posts more or less equivalent to town mayor, but at the federal level, all elected offices were term limited to one term. Deputies (equivalent to Representatives) served 3 years. Senators 6 years. The president 6 years.

    I think there’s reelection of deputies now, but I haven’t paid much attention. they’re not a rubber stamp now, but it’s not like they engage with their constituents much.

    There’s not much to say about the quality of legislation. Money is less of a problem, but that has more to do with how campaigns are financed. Donations are relatively small, while there’s plenty of government money involved.

  20. dale leitzke says:

    Yang’s idea is an improvement

  21. dale leitzke says:

    Term limits create lame duck lawmakers who are less likely to vote with the party whip.

  22. Not the IT Dept. says:

    We need smarter voters. Really, we could avoid most of our problems if Americans weren’t so politically stupid. But it won’t happen without a major crash of some kind, and I dread its arrival.

    “A republic – if you can keep it.” – Ben Franklin

    “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” – Thomas Jefferson

  23. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:


    But so do uncompetitive elections.

    Term limits don’t make competitive elections. On the contrary. Long time incumbents are more likely to win elections in districts and states where their party is not favored.

  24. Kurtz says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    One of my problems with term limits that isn’t reflected in the post is it may speed up the process for K Street and news networks.

    It’s already a problem. But to me, it would turn the legislature into an entry level position/farm system for big money consultancy firms and the Commentariat.

    Re: executive branch

    I thought about this quite a bit since last night. I think that it’s easy to point to the times when agencies have overstepped their authority. It’s also probable that there are excesses that sre not public knowledge even outside the intelligence/military apparatus.

    I see this as centered on a dysfunctional legislative system for two reasons. The legislature was designed at a time when lawmakers were not in session most of the year. The world is much faster now and vastly more complicated.

    1.) well-written legislation narrows an agency’s jurisdictional boundaries. Regulations issued by the executive are necessary primarily because policy makers cannot cover every possible situation or anticipate every contigency.

    2.) a well-functioning legislature would be able to effectively amend previous legislation to account for previously unforeseen consequences.

    It’s much easier to pretend that your legislators are not the problem, and it’s the ones from California and Mississippi that prevent your shiny-armored knight from fighting for you.

    Now, that’s not to say that GOP isnt a serious problem right now–it is. But eventually, they will move back toward the center-right party they are supposed to be.

    Re: Corruption

    Connotatively corruption is just a heuristic designed to indict a target.

    Denotatively corruption “greases the wheels,” as Kit put it. Term limits will do nothing to fix that. Your unique personal experience being around politicians your whole life is interesting. But I don’t know that it much different from the general view of corruption.

    I don’t think corruption is a result of long-time legislators becoming entitled and comfortable. It is a result of financial stakes for private actors and other forms of vested interests.

    Term limits would likely make that worse, not better. A legislator who knows that he has a limited time with power and leverage is likely to take all s/he can get while that possibilty exists.

    I would love to get a response, but I know this thread is close to expiration. I just had not gathered my thoughts enough to write it until now.

  25. Dave Schuler says:


    I see this as centered on a dysfunctional legislative system


    I don’t think you fully capture the link between length in office and corruption. The connection is two-fold: first, the longer in office, the more power (because of the seniority system) and second, the longer in office, the more you think you’re entitled to it and it’s for the good of the public, right?