A Debate on Congressional Term Limits

Jonathan Simpson (Americans for Congressional Term Limits) and Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson (Wayne State University) debate term limits.
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Would Introducing Term Limits for the House and Senate Encourage Bipartisanship?

By Jonathan Simpson and Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson. If you enjoy this piece, you can read more Political Pen Pals debates here.

Term Limits: Not a Panacea, but Close Enough

By Jonathan Simpson – Founder and Chairman Emeritus of Americans for Congressional Term Limits

Americans’ dissatisfaction with their government is no secret. While opinions of presidential administrations may rise and fall dramatically from one year to the next, or from one administration to another, public opinion is fairly consistent regarding the performance of one of our most powerful and influential institutions: Congress. Congressional approval hasn’t been above 40% since 2005. For about half of the time since 2005, it has been below 20%. Yet, even with such abysmal public opinion, congressional incumbents enjoy a reelection rate that rarely falls below 90%.

Term limits have long been thought of as a means to root out entrenched politicians. But, despite having widespread, bipartisan support from a substantial majority of Americans, Congress has not seriously considered a term limits amendment proposal since the early 1990s. There is a clear disconnect between what Americans want from this elected body and what they actually get. With an inefficient and wasteful government, partisan gridlock, and America’s undeniable lack of faith in Washington, term limits are precisely the reform needed to improve our government, end hyper-partisanship, and restore faith in American democracy.

To really understand how term limits could solve many of our nation’s problems, we first need to understand what the presence of limitless terms does to the incentive structure in Washington and to political dynamics as a whole.

Serving in Congress Isn’t Always an Act of Service

Since our nation’s founding, average tenure in Congress has steadily increased to 8.9 years in the House and 11 years in the Senate, and the percentage of representatives who do not seek reelection has steadily decreased. What’s more, around half of all senators have served in the House for an average of 9.5 years already. In contrast, the median tenure for American workers at their employers is just over four years. The term “career politician” may seem trite, but it is accurate.

Members of Congress by and large have made their service in the legislature a career. The problem, though, is that good performance alone isn’t what gives them the best chance of keeping their jobs. What is required to win office and stay in office is often at odds with what would be best for the general public. When the priority of members of Congress is to win elections, rather than serve the people, things can quickly go awry.

Staying in Congress Takes Money, and Money Costs

Winning an election often isn’t about ideas or leadership; it is about courting those who can help finance a campaign. Money is not all that wins elections, but it certainly helps. In 2020, 88% of House races and 71% of Senate races were won by the top spender. Money buys ads, buys exposure, and can help drive out the vote. As such, the amount of money spent on Congressional campaigns has almost quadrupled over the last 20 years, to $8.7 billion in 2020, and shows no signs of slowing.

Raising money takes an enormous amount of time from our elected representatives, time which could be spent solving actual problems, but it also reprioritizes actual policy in favor of bigger donors over the common good. Money can easily misalign the priorities of elected representatives, causing them to focus on groups with narrow interests and deep pockets over the general public they were elected to serve.

Limitless Terms Create Perverse Incentives

It is generally expected that Congress should work to solve problems, but elected representatives sometimes have little incentive to do so. Many of the most contentious and important issues facing our country are also the issues that drive out the vote and make for powerful campaign rhetoric. If winning elections is the most important priority of our elected officials, it may be better to let a problem fester, and blame those on the other side of the aisle for a lack of progress than to actually fix it.

Similarly, there is an incentive to vilify the entire opposing party and for representatives to keep in lockstep with their own. It is easier to argue to voters that they have just two choices than it is to argue the merits of each individual representative. Congress further shields its members from individual scrutiny by passing large, multifaceted bills and rarely taking up single-issue ones. With many issues lumped together in a single bill, representatives can avoid being conspicuously on the record for a specific issue.

A reelection focus also means a short-term focus. Members of the House are up for reelection every two years, and members of the Senate every six, so there is little incentive for any long-term thinking or legislating. Anything that would be better for the nation in the long run but might be difficult to bear in the short term has almost no chance of passing. Social Security, for instance, is facing an imminent shortfall, but most politicians are particularly shy when it comes to discussing reform. Conversely, members of Congress have an incentive to pursue pork projects that might benefit their districts in the short-term or give them an accolade to tout in campaign ads but have no real national or long-term benefit.

How Term Limits Can Work to Fix Everything

Term limits can immediately fix the incentive structure in Washington by simply removing the prospect of reelection in the first place. Big donors wield influence not because of what they donate in an election, but because of what they could donate in the next election. Once in office, powerful donors and special interests can only pull strings because of what they can do for, or to, a representative in their next election. If there simply is no more upcoming election, the strings are cut entirely. Politicians would have no incentive to listen to anyone’s concerns over another’s just because of their money or influence, nor would they need to spend such a gratuitous amount of time fundraising.

Posturing and partisan bickering would lose their value entirely, as the people elected to Congress would have one goal: serve the American people. There would be no incentive to make the other party look bad, no incentive to blame, no incentive to not find the best path forward, and no incentive to not compromise when necessary. Term limits would bring in a wave of new ideas and passionate citizens ready to serve their country for a time and then return home. Civility would be the new norm as members of Congress begin to see themselves as fellow Americans and not threats to their own careers. An “experienced” member of Congress would begin to mean someone with experience in the business world, medicine, education, the military, and elsewhere—not experience working the election-focused political machine in Washington. That would no longer exist.

Term limits are not a panacea to fixing political immoderation and a dysfunctional Congress, but they do come close. Term limits of 12 to 18 years would have little if any effect; they would need to be much shorter than that. Other proposals have their place as well, like ranked-choice voting or open primaries. Redistricting reform may go a long way to restore competitiveness and ease partisanship, too. But, term limits, more than anything, have the potential to revolutionize our political system and return power back to the people. Not by limiting donations or imposing more rules, but by ensuring one of the most fundamental American tenets- that those in power are the people.

Reality Check on Legislative Term Limits

By Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson Professor of Political Science, Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan

In the early 1990s, voters in 21 states limited the number of terms their state legislators could serve. Today, 15 states retain these limits. The limits vary widely from 12 years total in either chamber to 12 years in each chamber (i.e. 24 years total). Six states apply a lifetime ban while nine limit consecutive years of service. Michigan, our research site, has lifetime limits of 6 years in its House and 8 in its Senate—the shortest limit in any state in the lower chamber. It has a professional full-time legislature modeled on the US Congress.

Term limit advocates told voters that limiting legislators’ tenure would mitigate a host of problems plaguing democratic governments: gridlock, incumbency advantages, partisan polarization, and the corrupting influence of money. Advocates of term limits often evoke images of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in their portrayal of diligent, incorruptible citizen legislators. This appealed to many voters. 

To investigate whether term limits actually bring us closer to the world of “Mr. Smith”, scholars at Wayne State University launched a 12-year research project comparing the operation of Michigan’s state legislature before and after term limits were enacted. I was the principal investigator on that project. From 1998 to 2010, we conducted 460 interviews with state legislators. Our questions focused on the nuts and bolts of legislative tasks and processes, election results for Michigan, national election results (see the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research), and delved into state campaign finance data. We found scant evidence of “good government” outcomes.

Increasing Election Costs

Elections for Michigan’s state legislature became more expensive after term limits (adjusting for inflation), increasing the need for fundraising. Although election costs trend upward over time, there was a large step upward in each chamber when Michigan implemented term limits. Compared to 1990 costs without limits, state house election costs rose by about $4 million in 1998 after term limits were imposed. When the Senate implemented limits in 2002, we found that election costs in that chamber rose by about $4 million (Sarbaugh-Thompson et. al. (2004), The Political and Institutional Effects of Term Limits, p. 50). One possible cause for this is that term limits increase the number of open seats. Open seat elections tend to be more expensive, therefore it is not surprising that term limits increase the cost of elections.

Could this increase in the cost of elections reduce the influence wealthy donors and special interest groups wield over legislators? Probably not. Michigan legislators who were subject to term limits were more likely to list lobbyists and interest groups as important sources of information about issues considered in committee hearings and during floor votes more often than their predecessors. Novice legislators confront myriad complex issues that they lack time to learn about. Lacking knowledge, they rely on others to decide how to vote; under term limits, these sources are more likely to be from interest groups. 

Reducing Institutional Knowledge

Before term limits, committee chairs were specialists with deep knowledge of issues in the committee’s domain. Many legislators relied on chairs for information about how to vote on issues. After term limits forced these experienced officers to leave, first-term legislators, who may have never served on a committee before, had to chair committees in Michigan’s House. We often observed staff trying to guide these novices through basic committee procedures. Novice committee chairs are less likely to be consulted by their colleagues, no longer providing an alternative source of guidance to interest groups. 

Even more alarming, term-limited legislators also relied less on local sources of information like school superintendents or mayors (Sarbaugh-Thompson, Marjorie and Lyke Thompson (2017), Term Limits in State Legislature: The Case of Michigan, Ch. 6). This reliance on political operatives and lobbyists for information makes novice legislators more amenable to their influence. In fact, more term-limited legislators said they were asked to run, or even recruited by an interest group. We found no corresponding increase in the proportion of legislators recruited by grassroots community organizations. 

Although legislators are “termed out” after 6 or 8 years, while in office they are less accountable to their voters. Their roll call votes diverged more from the ideological orientation of their district than those of legislators who did not face term limits. Additionally, term limits magnify the number of legislators serving their final term—lame ducks—who are no longer accountable to their voters, and thus more susceptible to the influence of special interest groups.

Ratcheting up Gridlock

Voters were told elections would be more competitive after term limits, which would drive legislators to respond to their constituents more, easing logjams keeping many valuable bills from becoming law. Although open seats are more competitive, the competition requires primary elections. Primary voters tend to be more ideologically extreme than general election voters, elevating candidates who are less likely to compromise. With voting districts drawn to protect the dominant political party, these extreme candidates easily glide through their elections. We found that when limits are short (e.g. 6 years in Michigan’s House), incumbents are less likely to face serious primary challengers because it’s easier to wait a couple years for the seat to open up than to challenge an incumbent. Michigan’s incumbents are safer, after their first election victory, than they were before term limits. Safe incumbents are insulated against pressure to work across the aisles and take tough votes that could jeopardize their careers.

During our interviews with pre- and post-term-limits legislators, we presented the lawmakers with a list of typical legislative tasks and asked how much time they devoted to each. Two received notably less effort after term limits were imposed: developing new legislation and working across party lines to pass more legislation (Sarbaugh-Thompson, Marjorie and Lyke Thompson (2017), Term Limits in State Legislature: The Case of Michigan, p. 78). 

Part of this change could be attributed to the replacement of experienced committee chairpersons with novice lawmakers, which post-term-limits legislators attribute to inexperienced committee chairpersons. These chairs often punished their political opponents with such tactics as shutting off the microphones of rival party members and restricting time to query witnesses in committee hearings with limits like a “one-question” rule. Findings like these pointed to an increase in petty rivalry and polarization that only increased legislative gridlock, rather than abating it.

Conflicts of Interest

One task where we measured an increase was how much effort legislators devoted to securing funds for projects in their districts—commonly known as pork. This increased after term limits were imposed, especially for legislators planning to run for another office after their legislative service.

This brings us to political careers. We asked what legislators planned to do after their legislative service; most had further political aspirations. Nearly 70% of those elected after the imposition of term limits planned to run for another office, while only about 50% of pre-term-limit legislators said this. This might have created conflicts of interest for legislators who viewed their current positions as a mere stepping stone to some other office, possibly one with higher pay and without term limits. 

For example, a legislator planning to run for mayor, county prosecutor, or seek statewide office might take policy positions at odds with the voters in their legislative district in order to build a favorable voting record for a future electoral contest. Electoral calculations of these politically ambitious legislators might lean more toward impressing future constituents rather than serving the needs of their current voters. This could explain at least part of the widening gulf between the political leanings of voting districts and the voting records of their representatives.

The High Cost of Cheap Promises

Michigan’s voters were promised that term limits would solve a host of problems with their government. Instead, they got a legislature populated by politically ambitious partisans and ideologues, who increasingly turn to interest groups and partisan staff for information about complex issues. The roll call votes cast by post-term-limits legislators are further from the views of their constituents than their predecessors’ votes were. In a state where more than a third of voters identify as independents, fewer legislators work to build bipartisan coalitions to pass legislation and almost none vote in the middle of the ideological spectrum. We found many other changes after term limits, such as increasing the power of chamber leaders to control the caucus and a lack of knowledge about basic legislative duties, like monitoring the work of executive branch agencies. 

To fix problems like money in politics, we need to address contribution limits and ban dark money. If we want less polarized politics, we need to hold runoffs in primary elections if no one receives over 50% of the votes. If we want competitive elections, gerrymandering has to end. Term limits claims are a fantasy that distracts from the hard work of true reform.

In Response to Ms. Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson: A Rebuttal in Defense of Federal Term Limits

By Jonathan Simpson – Founder and Chairman Emeritus of Americans for Congressional Term Limits

Dr. Sarbaugh-Thompson provided an excellent and intriguing summary analysis of her research at Wayne State University into the effects of term limits on a state legislature. Michigan was the subject of the research and had enacted term limits of 6 years in their House of Representatives and 8 years in their Senate. This came to a combined total of up to 14 years of service in the state legislature. I found many of her points compelling and felt that they made quite a bit of sense, given what was being studied. However, I believe something of a category error has been made. Her argument against the imposition of term limits on the United States Congress is based on the outcomes of term limits imposed on a state legislature. These are related, but they are not the same things.

Problems that Are Not Solved

As Dr. Sarbaugh-Thompson pointed out, “nearly 70% of those elected after the imposition of term limits planned to run for another office, while only about 50% of pre-term-limit legislators said this.” This implies that term limits on the state legislature have done little to keep politicians from continually seeking reelection. Instead of politicians being able to remain in the legislature indefinitely, they simply continue their career in another elected office. The problem with looking at a state legislature is that so long as there is a federal legislature with limitless terms, state term limits will do nothing to stop the ills associated with limitless election potential. These politicians could ultimately seek office in the United States Congress, which does not have term limits, and continue their endless careers there.

Politicians under Michigan term limits still have the potential to run another race and get elected again and again, without end. Special interest groups and big donors still wield tremendous power over career politicians. Legislators have all the more reason to engage in dog-whistle politics and partisan showmanship. If we want to actually end the never-ending up-ballot election chain and see all the positive rewards of term limits, we need to impose term limits on the United States Congress.

Solutions that We Do Not Need

There were some other points made, however, that could apply to term limits on the United States Congress. These points, though, seem to be either inconsequential or actually indicate a positive outcome. For instance, rising election costs would be expected as races become more competitive. Races featuring powerful incumbents are, as Dr. Sarbaugh-Thompson pointed out, typically less expensive than competitive ones. This is not a negative side effect. The study also found that legislators developed less legislation and worked across the aisle less. Less legislation is actually a welcome trend. We do not want our legislatures churning out wasteful bill after wasteful bill simply so they will have something to crow about in a campaign ad. When it comes to legislation, we need quality, not quantity. The concept of working across the aisle should also diminish as the arbitrary distinctions between the parties give way to actual, objective debate and solutions. This point seems to be reinforced by Dr. Sarbaugh-Thompson’s point that votes tended to be less constrained by the ideological preferences of constituents. That point seems to indicate that policy had indeed moderated because of the presence of term limits. This is another positive outcome.

Ultimately, however, even with term limits it is still possible to elect bad leaders. Those willing to game the electoral system for personal profit will still worm their way into office. And politicians at the end of their careers, be it from limited terms or personal choice, will always be difficult to hold to account. However, term limits—in particular, short limits at the federal level—have the potential to shift what it means to serve in Congress. When government work changes from being a career move to being an act of service, it will begin to attract candidates of much higher quality than it does now. Other reforms have their uses, but term limits would go a long way toward fixing much of what is going wrong in our political systems. I believe we can all agree that committed citizens belong in Congress, not members of an elite political class.

In Response: Term Limits do Little to Curb Political Ambition

By Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson Professor of Political Science, Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan

I would like to clarify two points about the likely effects of term limits on the U.S. Congress.  First, as Mr. Simpson points out, the data I have is based on what state legislators do after they are termed out of office. Federal officials confront different options, and I do not have data on their choices. The website Open Secrets, however, does have that information. This source shows that among the 106 former members of the 115th Congress, 62 held other jobs. Of these, 29 held jobs in lobbying firms (while former members of Congress are not allowed to lobby during their so-called cooling-off period, they can immediately work as “strategic advisors”). Six worked for lobbying clients, four joined a federal government agency, nine served in state governments, six worked for PACs, six worked in private organizations, and one worked in academia. Although my own data is only about state legislators, data on federal legislators from sources like Open Secrets reinforces the general point that these are politically ambitious people who find ways to continue their political careers. Term-limiting federal legislators could, and probably would simply make the revolving door spin faster.

Second, I was not sufficiently clear about the ways in which term-limited legislators’ views diverge from their constituents’ views. After term limits, Democrats tend to be even more liberal than their voters, while Republicans tend to be much more conservative than their voters. My failure to identify the direction of this shift led Mr. Simpson to assume that legislators would be more moderate and better able to resist their constituents’ extreme views. Unfortunately, the reverse is true; legislators have become more extreme in their views — and this is true for legislators from both political parties. So, there is less potential for some sort of bipartisan compromise.

If you liked this post, you can read more of our Encouraging Bipartisanship series here

Jonathan Simpson
Founder and Chairman Emeritus of Americans for Congressional Term Limits | + posts

Jonathan Simpson is the founder and Chairman Emeritus of Americans for Congressional Term Limits, a leading nonpartisan think tank and advocacy group dedicated to the imposition of term limits on Congress. He has worked the past decade on term limits research and advocacy, and has advised members of Congress and members of numerous state legislatures across the country on the issue and implications of term limits and the Article V Constitutional Convention amendment process. He continues to serve as a Senior Advisor to ACTL.


Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson
Professor of Political Science, Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan | + posts

Dr. Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson is a professor of Political Science at Wayne State University in Detroit, where she is actively involved in teaching in the department’s MPA and BPA programs. Her primary research and teaching interests revolve around public policymaking and institutional change in public sector organizations. Dr. Sarbaugh-Thompson is the principal author of two books on term limits based on 13 years of research based on more than 400 face-to-face interviews with elected officials. More recently she investigated best practices in state legislative oversight in the 50 states in collaboration with the Levin Center at Wayne State University’s Law School. She received her Ph.D. in Public Policy from the University of Michigan in 1992.

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