*This post is a modified version of my POLS 4600 research paper, Legislative Term Limits and the Behavior of State Legislators, from March 2018.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, conservative grassroots reformers pushed for term limits in both the United States Congress and state legislatures. In 1992, two of the three major candidates for president endorsed congressional term limits: H. Ross Perot famously led an independent candidacy that made them a major priority, and incumbent Republican George H.W. Bush echoed that support by citing the “institutionalization” of Congress when asked about term limits during the second presidential debate (Commission, 2015). Republicans put a plank in their 1994 Contract with America promising to bring term limits up for a vote, with many pledging not to serve more than a few terms (Weisberg, 1998). While it was not successful in limiting Congress, the movement did see legislative term limits passed in 21 states at its zenith, though six have since repealed them (National, 2015).
Proponents argued that term limits were necessary to combat corruption and remove from office out-of-touch career politicians controlled by interest groups, putting power back in the hands of the people by empowering righteous “citizen-legislators” who would run government the proper way (Bandow, 1995). In addition, Republican legislators had assumed the position of the minority party both at the state and federal level for decades; they viewed term limits as away to eliminate Democrats’—particularly Southern Democrats’—incumbency advantage and win a larger share of seats (Powell, 2008, pp. 33-34). Critics have pointed to lack of knowledge and experience, weaker leadership, and decreased influence of the legislature with respect to the executive, the bureaucracy, lobbyists, and staffers as reasons why term limits are undesirable.
Now that time has passed since certain states adopted term limits, political scientists can step away from theoretical predictions and make more accurate assessments of their real world impact. Nearly three decades later, how have these term limits affected state legislatures? In particular, what effect have term limits had on the behavior of state legislators, from policy preferences and voting behaviors to interactions with state executive branches? I will first begin with a brief review of academic literature pertaining to term limits, covering both theoretical predictions made in the early 1990s as well as more recent studies that use real data, followed by an investigation into the recent impact of term limits on legislators, including number and proportion of legislators forced out of office as a result of term limits and policy preferences in term-limited states.
Term limits are an oft-discussed topic in academic literature. Given their salience during the latter portion of the twentieth century, they attracted the attention of numerous political scientists looking to gain a better understanding of their effects and test the claims of grassroots advocates. Studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s approached legislative term limits from a theoretical perspective, as no state had yet implemented them. Perhaps the most seminal work from this era is Moncrief et al. (1992), which examines the impact that term limits would have on existing members of state legislatures if they had been retroactively implemented. They observe retention rates of legislators, tracking cohorts of freshmen legislators over time, bearing in mind a 12-year term limit. The authors find that just over a quarter of legislators remained in lower houses after 12 years while a third of legislators remained in upper houses, disputing claims by some activists that most legislators in non-term-limited legislatures remain in power for a long time and calling into question whether term limits would produce their intended effects (Moncrief, 1992, pp. 38-45).
Opheim (1994) replicates Moncrief et al.’s study using an eight-year term limit, the most common kind of term limit passed by state legislatures. Her study makes two assumptions: that time served in one chamber does not count against time served in another chamber, and that term limits only count consecutive service (i.e. if a legislator left office for a term and then got reelected, the clock would reset). Under these conditions, Opheim finds that more than three-fifths of state legislators remain in office after eight years, offering evidence that term limits would have a much stronger effect. She points to certain factors that might affect retention and attrition rates of legislators, including attractiveness of the elected office (the more attractive an office, the longer legislators will remain) and professionalism (more professional legislatures will have higher retention rates). Term limits are likely to have a much larger impact on the California State Senate, a highly professional upper house, than the Arkansas State House of Representatives, a less professional lower house (Opheim, 1994, pp. 51-58).
More recent studies have benefited from actual data. Carey, Niemi, and Powell (1998) collect survey data from 3,000 state legislators across the country, observing that legislators in term-limited states perceive that they spend less time on pork barrel activities, focus more on the state level rather than the district level, and that the executive branch has become more powerful relative to the legislature (Carey, 1998, pp. 293-295). Moncrief and Thompson (2001) also use qualitative survey data to analyze the behavioral, institutional, and electoral effects of term limits on legislators, but do so from the viewpoint of lobbyists. They cite that lobbyists can uniquely assess these effects because of their close relationships with and attentiveness to legislators and their personal insulation from term limits. Moncrief and Thompson ask lobbyists to answer survey questions on a 1-to-5 scale in three categories: legislative behavior, influence structure, and recruitment and campaigns. Aside from general agreement that legislators rely more on staff to draft legislation and that legislators are generally less knowledgeable under term limits, lobbyists lack broad consensus over term limits’ effects on legislative behavior. However, they widely agree that state executive branches, partisan staff, and interest groups have gained power with respect to legislators. In addition, most lobbyists agree that different kinds of candidates seek out elected office in states with term limits, although aside from majorities citing increased ideological commitment and partisanship, they disagree exactly how else (Moncrief, 2001, pp. 399-403).
In conjunction with behavioral and institutional effects, the policy implications of term limits have been widely examined. Erler (2007) investigates how spending habits differ between states with and without term limits and finds that “term limits have increased expenditures in a broad range of categories” (p. 480). Day and Boeckelman (2012) observe the impact of term limits on state government debt, given the dominance and salience of budgetary questions in most state legislatures. They hypothesize that term-limited states are more likely to see an increase in per capita debt over non-term-limited states for a few reasons. States with term limits tend to see more turnover and lack the institutional memory of older legislators to help craft sounder budgetary policy, especially because budget issues tend to have longer-term implications that might escape the attention of term-limited legislators. These legislatures tend to pass more legislation, as they do not have the luxury of powerful legislative leadership that can guide the policy process and prevent frivolous legislation from coming to the floor. The desire to run for higher office pushes term-limited legislators to seek out more pork for their district to gain electoral favor (Day, 2012, pp. 322-327). Day and Boeckelman use regression analysis to gauge the effect of multiple independent variables on state government date, including term limits, revenue, spending, population, tax and spending limits, professionalism, party control, and citizen ideology, among others. They find $59 per capita more in debt in term-limited states than in non-term-limited states. When holding other variables constant, state debt increases to $62 per capita. These numbers are significant, as a highly populated state like California might see an increase in nearly a billion dollars in state debt as a result of term limits. Day and Boeckelman’s findings dispute proponents’ claim that citizen-legislators are more fiscally responsible (Day, 2012, pp. 329-333).
Term Limits in State Legislatures
At the high water mark of the term limits movement, voters in 21 states passed legislative term limits. In six states, those limits have since been abolished, with two (Idaho and Utah) doing so by legislature and four (Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming) by courts. Today, 15 states still maintain term limits, though these limits differ among them. Most of these states implemented term limits in the early to mid 1990s, with the first wave of legislators reaching the limits in the early 2000s (National, 2015).
Nine of the 15 states implemented limits on consecutive service, requiring legislators after a certain number of terms to either seek office in the other chamber or sit out, generally for two years. Once leaving office or switching chambers, the clock resets (Opheim, 1994, p. 51). These states are Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, and South Dakota. In the other six states, there is a lifetime limit on how long someone can serve in the state legislature. In Arkansas, California, and Oklahoma, the limit is a fixed number of years across both chambers, while in Michigan, Missouri, and Nevada, legislators are limited to a certain number of terms in each chamber. The number of terms allowed also varies across states. As Opheim observes, most states use eight-year term limits—usually four two-year terms—in each chamber, although some, like Louisiana and Nevada, place the limit at 12 years (National, 2015).
Professionalism in Term-Limited States
Based on professionalism rankings by Squire (2007), the mean professionalism score for state legislatures in was .184, with the median at .154. California tops the list at .626, indicating a high degree of professionalism, while New Hampshire sits at the bottom at .027 (Squire, 2007, pp. 220-221). Among the 15 term-limited states, the mean professionalism score was actually higher than that of non-term-limited states at .204. Though this number this may be a skewed by California’s highly professional legislature, the median professionalism score for term-limited states is .174. This finding is surprising because of the general consensus in the literature that term-limited legislatures tend to be less professional. Indeed, one cannot make a career in a state legislature if forced to retire after eight years.
Compare these professionalism scores to scores prior to the implementation of term limits: across the board, the mean professionalism score was .221 in 1986, with the median at .186. California also topped the list with a similar .625 score, while New Hampshire retained its last place spot with a .042 score. In states that currently have term-limits, the mean professionalism score was 0.261 in 1986 with a median professionalism score of 0.250, still indicating greater professionalism than in non-term-limited states.
Squire calculates professionalism using a number of different factors. Legislators that earn more money and benefits are more professional than those who earn less because they can afford to make a career out of politics rather than treating it as a side job. Legislators that serve year-round, such as those in Michigan, are more professional than those who only serve 40 days, like in Georgia. Staff and resources are more plentiful in professional legislatures, increasing the ability and capacity to make policy (Squire, 2007, p. 213).
Recent Elections Data
Assuming eight-year term limits since 1992, state legislatures with term limits have seen full membership turnover three times through 2016, giving political scientists an opportunity to test their retroactive term limits studies from the early 1990s. In 2016, 13 of the 15 states with term limits held legislative elections, seeing 186 state representatives and 67 state senators forced out of office due to ineligibility. Of those 13 states, Republicans controlled 11 legislatures while Democrats only controlled California’s (Nebraska’s unicameral legislature is non-partisan). In line with observations made by Moncrief (1992) and Opheim, a greater percentage of state senators (20.2 percent) left office due to term limits than state representatives (14.8 percent), reflecting higher retention rates of state upper houses (Ballotpedia, 2016).
Despite overwhelming Republican control of these state legislatures, the partisan makeup of term-limited senators was plurality Democratic, largely because of the size of California’s legislature: 29 Democrats were term-limited compared to only 26 Republicans. At the state level, five states had more term-limited Democrats than term-limited Republicans (California, Colorado, Maine, Montana, and Ohio), and five states had more term-limited Republicans than term-limited Democrats (Arizona, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma, and South Carolina). Neither Arkansas nor Nevada had any senators forced out of office by term limits. In Nebraska, 12 non-partisan senators were forced out of office by term-limits (Ballotpedia, 2016).
Polarization of Term-Limited States
Political polarization has become a major phenomenon in legislatures at both the national and the state levels. While plenty of research has documented the causes of polarization in Congress, less attention has been paid to state politics because of the vast differences in party politics across states. Indeed, Republicans in the Northeast are very different from Republicans in the South and may share more in common with modern Southern Democrats.
Shor and McCarty (2014), both scholars of polarization, devised a method for tracking the polarization of state politics from 1996 to 2013. Interestingly, six of the 12 most polarized states (California, Colorado, Michigan, Arizona, Ohio, and Missouri) have implemented term limits. However, this raises questions about causality; it can be difficult to determine the true relationship between term limits and polarization, as both elites and the public have become increasingly polarized over the course of the last four decades.
Though term limits were en vogue in the early 1990s, with promises to clean out a corrupt, out-of-touch, and wasteful government beholden to special interests, the movement has died down. This can largely be explained by two factors. First, and perhaps most importantly, Republicans took control of both chambers of Congress in 1994 after 40 years, and from 1994 to 2018 held onto the House of Representative for all but four years. All but a select few Southern Democrats retired or switched parties, allowing Republicans to govern and benefit from the advantages of incumbency. Second, with more real data to examine, political science research has exposed many of the flaws in arguments in favor of term limits. Spending is more exorbitant in term-limited states, state government debt is higher, the position of the legislature with respect to the executive is weakened, and legislators are generally less knowledgeable and therefore more partisan. However, the movement was not without its share of success stories, as evidenced by the 15 states that still maintain term limits.
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