Parents during the 1990s were no stranger to Furbies, fanny packs and Beanie Babies. For many moms and dads they represented critical infrastructure for the weekend survival kit (although for the record, I never donned a fanny pack). Participants in the electoral process during that decade faced an equally ubiquitous political fad: term limits.
The House of Representatives voted on two versions of congressional term limits in 1995 ? a six-year and 12-year ban ? but neither became law. Similarly, 21 states adopted some form of term limits for their legislators during the early 1990s.
You hear less about term limits these days, a surprise given the dismal state of congressional popularity. It’s as if limiting congressional tenure has gone the way of Tickle Me Elmo. Writing in the National Journal three years ago, David Baumann said, “term limits have lost their glitter.” A 2005 Roll Call headline reads, “Term-Limits Issue Lacks the Political Punch It Once Had.”
But declining interest in term limits is more complicated than a fading fad. For all its surface appeal, closer inspection reveals that voters seem to understand the procedure causes other effects that quickly mitigate its benefits.
Popularized in Washington during the 1990s, pressure first grew on the electoral side for lawmakers to limit the number of terms they served in Congress. Institutional reforms followed. After taking the majority following the 1994 election, Republicans amended their conference rules, limiting committee chairs to serve six years.
Democrats never followed suit with a term-limit regime. Indeed, some in the Democratic leadership now even ridicule the idea. Commenting on term limits for committee chairs, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland told Roll Call last week, “I think it puts rationality on hold…I think it puts intellect on hold.”
It was more politically incorrect to hold that view during the Furbie decade. Disappointing or unintended consequences at the state level is one possible explanation for waning interest. Some of these unexpected results were outlined in the most recent edition of Legislative Studies Quarterly, in an article titled “The Effects of Term Limits on State Legislatures: A New Survey of the 50 States,” by political scientists John M. Carey, Richard G. Niemi, Lynda W. Powell and Gary F. Moncrief.
The researchers investigate three major questions. Do electoral tenure restrictions affect the type of individuals drawn to politics, and their behavior in term-limited environments? And do limits bring institutional effects, like shifts in power of the legislature compared to the executive branch?
In contrast to reformers’ hopes, the study finds no impact of term limits on who runs for office. “The absence of compositional effects thus stands in stark contrast to the expectations of the reform advocates of the 1990s who heralded a ‘new breed’ of amateur politician. Whatever the underlying motivations are for entry into political life, the presence of term limits did not change them.”
The authors also report legislators’ electioneering and fund raising is no different in term-limited compared to non-term-limited states. Yet the study does find term-limited legislators report other interesting behavioral changes. They suggest lawmakers undergo a “Burkean shift,” paying less attention to their constituents and becoming “more inclined to favor their own conscience and interests of the state over those of the district.” In other words, away from a delegate model of representation, and toward the trustee model advocated by British philosopher Edmund Burke.
Finally, the researchers report limiting terms “increases the power of the executive branch (governors and the bureaucracy) over legislative outcomes and weakens the influence of majority party leaders and committee chairs.” They find no difference in perceived impact of the mass media, interest groups and legislative staff, between term-limited and non-term-limited states.
These results may provide some clues underlying term limits’ waning interest in recent years. It’s possible voters believe the experience in the states has been a mixed bag just substituting one set of issues, problems and trade-offs with another. If term limits produce the same type of politician, lawmakers less attuned to constituents and expanded powers for the executive branch, is it worth making the change?
Polling data suggest term limits are still popular among voters. But research like that of Mr. Carey and his colleagues suggests that despite the visceral appeal of tenure restrictions among disenchanted voters, the impact of such reforms also includes unintended consequences and additional complications. It’s probably why popular support for term limits may be wide, but also about as deep as voters’ affection for Furbie.