Americans have very hazy notions of how government actually works. As a result, they tend to embrace “reforms” that sound superficially attractive but would actually make things worse. I call them “bumper sticker” solutions because they are usually short and simple enough to slap on your car’s bumper.
Vox recently addressed one of those “solutions,” term limits, and did a very good job of explaining why this particular “fix” is a terrible idea.
In one recent survey, 75 percent of Americans said they supported term limits, including 65 percent of Democrats.
For that reason, it’s worth spending a few minutes on this point, because it does get to a fundamental problem with how the public views Washington. There is a perennial myth that the problem with Washington is that the longer people spend there, the more corrupt they become. Therefore, the only way to ensure good judgment in politics is to constantly have a bunch of fresh-faced lawmakers who are total rookies and don’t understand how anything in Washington works.
Since 15 states do have term limits, we actually can know something about their effects. And the political science literature here is pretty unequivocal. Term limits are the surest way to weaken the legislative branch and empower the executive branch. Term limits are also a great way to empower special interests and lobbyists. Basically, what term limits do is shift power toward those who are there for the long haul.
For example, here’s the conclusion from a 50-state survey published in 2006: “Term limits weaken the legislative branch relative to the executive. Governors and the executive bureaucracy are reported to be more influential over legislative outcomes in states where term limits are on the books than where they are not.”
This result has been replicated multiple times. In one study, a post-term-limits respondent said that after term limits, “agencies [do] what they want to. [One bureaucrat told me] we were here when you got here, and we’ll be here when you’re gone.” As the authors of this study note, “Legislative oversight is the venue of specialists. A term-limited legislature tends to be populated by generalists, who lack the accumulated knowledge to exercise oversight effectively, if they even recognize it as their responsibility.”
Term limits also strengthen the power of lobbyists and interest groups for the same reason…. But like the executive agencies of the state government, lobbyists and interest groups are also there year after year. They are the true repeat players building long-term relationships and the true keepers of the institutional knowledge. This gives them power.
The truth of the matter is that government operations are complicated, and competent policymaking requires significant substantive and procedural knowledge. At the federal level, congressional (House) terms are two years–just enough time for a neophyte to find the bathroom and figure out the arcane rules of procedure. The first thing every newly elected Representative does is hire staff from among the available pool of political and policy experts with relevant experience, and for at least the first term–and probably the second–a smart Congress-critter will be guided by those staff member, because they’ve been around long enough to know the ins and outs.
A significant percentage of the people who staff congressional offices are in Washington for the long haul serving consecutive committees and elected officials. If elected folks are term-limited, those faceless staff members will be the ones really making policy decisions. So much for accountability.
We already have a mechanism for limiting legislators’ terms. It’s called voting. The biggest impediments to its effective use are gerrymandering and civic ignorance.