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The Student News Site of Rock Bridge High School

Bearing News

The Student News Site of Rock Bridge High School

Bearing News

Term limits on state legislatures hinder government effectiveness

Sable Smith

Term limits are a popular institution in the U.S., with 16 states having them for state legislatures, and over 80% of Americans saying they would like to see them implemented in Congress. Term limits bar politicians from legislative offices after they have served for a specific amount of time, usually eight or 12 years. Legislative term limits first began in the 1990s when various states started approving them through referendums. On the surface, term limits seem like a great way to improve government by making sure politicians don’t stay in office too long, but in reality, term limits end up exacerbating the problems they are supposed to solve, and the government ends up being less effective as a result. 

Limiting the amount of time politicians can serve often causes legislatures to be made up of inexperienced lawmakers. It takes many years for politicians to learn how to effectively govern, and state lawmakers often have no training in government positions prior to taking office. Term limits create a constant turnover in state legislatures, with the more skilled and experienced lawmakers being replaced by new and less inexperienced ones. In addition, the leaders of legislative chambers with term limits are actually often inexperienced as well. A study by the Brookings Institution found that in legislative chambers with term limits, lawmakers have on average only about five years of experience in the chamber before they take over leadership positions. Limiting the time politicians have in the legislature also disincentivizes them to learn the skills of lawmaking, as those skills won’t be useful once they leave the legislature in a few years. This can cause lawmakers to remain largely ineffective at creating and passing quality legislation, even as they approach the end of their tenure. 

Inexperienced lawmakers then turn to outside groups to help with creating policies. A study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that after California adopted term limits on state legislatures, lawmakers became more likely to listen to lobbyists for policy decisions. This makes it more likely for issues important to special interest groups to be put above those important to average citizens. The same study also found that California lawmakers became less likely to screen and alter bills from the governor, as many of them did not understand the bills, and simply deferred to the governor’s judgment. This gives governors substantial power over legislatures and makes it easier for bills to be passed with little research into their potential impact. 

For example, in 2012, Michigan governor Rick Synder proposed a “right-to-work” bill that allowed workers in unionized industries to not pay union dues. The Michigan legislature, which had term limits of eight years, passed the bill in one day without it going through committees or public hearings. The law was intended to help Michigan industries, but it ended up lowering wages for workers and increasing economic inequality. The law also failed to boost Michigan industries nor produce more jobs, eventually being repealed in 2023. The term limits in Michigan resulted in inexperienced lawmakers, who quickly passed a bill from the governor without looking into its potential effects.

Term limits also make politicians less inclined to listen to their constituents. Lawmakers that are running for re-election are incentivized to do things their constituents want, as it will improve their chances of winning. But when a lawmaker is term limited, it takes away that incentive. Since term limited politicians do not have to worry about pleasing their constituents, many of them will begin voting based on their personal beliefs, and not on the beliefs of the area they represent. This practice is called a “Burkean Shift,” and a study by the Legislative Studies Quarterly found that state legislatures with term limits have on average a higher number of “Burkean Shifts” than legislatures without term limits.

Since term limited politicians do not have to worry about pleasing their constituents, many of them will begin voting based on their personal beliefs, and not on the beliefs of the area they represent.

Forcing politicians to retire early also causes many of them to focus more on securing future jobs than properly serving their constituents. Many outgoing politicians look to be hired at lobbying firms, which can be a very lucrative job. A study by State Politics & Policy Quarterly found that approximately half of state lawmakers become lobbyists after they leave office, and according to the Center for American Progress, politicians looking to become lobbyists are more likely to vote in ways that benefit certain industries, regardless of if it hurts average citizens. Instituting term limits increases the number of outgoing lawmakers, which in turn, creates more incentives for them to make policies based on what will get them hired at a lobbying firm. The more lobbyist-seeking politicians there are in a legislature, the harder it is to get legislation passed that helps the people at the expense of certain corporations. 

Another way lawmakers try to secure future jobs is by running for higher political offices. These politicians will focus more on winning primary elections then they will on serving the people in their districts, causing politicians to lean further to the right and left in order to help their chances of winning. A study by the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics found that members of the Ohio legislature were more partisan after the state adopted term limits. This is not just because of politicians seeking higher offices, as the study also found that much of the polarization came from newly elected members that had faced a competitive primary for their seat. Primary voters tend to lean much more heavily to the right and left than the average citizens, which forces politicians to take more partisan stances on issues when running for office. Term limits increase the number of open seats each election, which results in a higher number of competitive primaries. These primary elections help fill the legislature with more partisan members, which makes it harder to get legislation passed, as effective legislation usually requires bipartisan support to pass. 

Missouri has term limits on its state legislators that limit members to eight years in office. Six states have already removed their term limits, so it is time for Missouri, as well as all the other states with term limits, to follow suit. While term limits were originally implemented with the idea that they would make government more effective, they have proven to be doing the opposite. It is important that citizens push to have these term limits removed, as it is key to helping improve government effectiveness and the lives of the average citizen.  

Do you support term limits in state legislatures? Let us know in the comments below. 

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About the Contributors
Ryan Tunks
Ryan Tunks, Staff Writer
Senior Ryan Tunks is a staff writer for Bearing News and Southpaw. In his free time he spends time reading and watching wildlife.
Sable Smith
Sable Smith, Staff Artist
Junior Sable Smith is a new staff artist for Southpaw and Bearing news. They are also a member of art club. They pass the time by drawing, using their huge collection of coloring books, watching random video essays and listening to true crime podcasts.

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