Anik Joshi: Term limits won’t solve the problem

Monday, January 13, 2020 - 11:06am

Term limits are a solution frequently championed by both the left and right as a way to bring new people into office who offer new solutions to old problems. Term limits are an idea with widespread support: Tom Steyer, one of the billionaires running for the Democratic nomination, voiced his support for term limits. As did President Trump. These candidates aren’t alone, but a lot of support does not always guarantee good policy.

A term limit already exists for the presidency, but they are a somewhat recent invention: The 22nd Amendment, which codified two terms for the presidency, was passed during the Truman years as a response to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unprecedented four terms. Before Roosevelt, most presidents had stepped down in a show of respect to George Washington who had served only two terms. Presidential term limits have also not always been widely accepted. For example, in the late 1980s, President Ronald Reagan declared his support for a repeal of the 22nd Amendment in an interview with British TV personality David Frost. 

Reagan’s argument was that people ought to have the right to “vote for someone as often as they want to,” and he was correct — representative government works best when people can have their choice of leaders. Term limits trample over this right and choice and in doing so create a worse, more incompetent governing class, thus damaging the experience for all members of society. 

Usually, one reason people champion term limits is to address corruption. First, proponents argue that politicians limited by terms will be less likely to need campaign cash (because they run for fewer terms). Another argument is that term limits might be a way to address the “revolving door,” a phenomenon where formerly elected officials transition to lobbyists. 

Unfortunately, both of these ideas are incorrect as term-limited politicians spend less time with constituent services than their non-term limited contemporaries, but spend an equal amount of time campaigning and fundraising. Fewer terms make constituent services less important. If a politician only faces voters a few times, the incentive for strong constituent services decreases. With regards to closing the revolving door, Michigan is an excellent example of that door being open. In 1992, Michigan voters checked the box next to the smooth-talking, slicked-back saxophone player Bill Clinton and also voted in favor of term limits in the Michigan Term Limits Amendment, Proposal B. The limits were three two-year terms for the House of Representatives and two four-year terms for the Senate. A few years ago, the Detroit Free Press investigated the results of this bill and they were pretty depressing. Of the almost 300 officials elected from 1992 to 2014, 71 of them — nearly 25 percent — registered as lobbyists or ended up working as consultants or paid advocates. Having a rate this high calls into question the efficacy of term limits and questions the continuation of the blind promotion of term limits in other states and at the federal level. 

The most significant issue with term limits comes with what is done to institutional knowledge. Only by maintaining a long career can a politician build the skill set necessary to achieve great things and overcome obstacles. Lyndon Johnson became the Master of the Senate by virtue of his longtime career in Congress, but if he had been kicked from the House after six years, that never would have been. Indeed, in states with term-limited politicians, the only people who stay and thus have more power are lobbyists and partisan staff. Partisan staffers have a politician’s ear over the more apolitical, legislative staffers due to the fact that politicians are more familiar with the campaign crew and more likely to look to them for advice. Elected officials don’t have time to build relationships with the apolitical staff, and the governing process is worse when those staff are cut out of the picture. Lobbyists also gain power because they pick up institutional knowledge by virtue of being the only people who survive the churn. As a result, representatives effectively end up dependent on them for certain information and will vote accordingly. 

Finally, we have term limits in a highly relevant manner already: our elections. If the voters can decide to end a politician’s term by voting against them, why then should they not be able to give them another term provided there is no criminality or lawbreaking? Term limits are a bad idea but a snappy soundbite. They drain institutional knowledge, empower lobbyists and do nothing to prevent corruption. These drawbacks ought to be enough to say no to term limits.  

Anik Joshi can be reached at anikj@umich.edu.