Produced by the BGA's Civic Engagement team, the BGA Backstory project is a non-partisan guide to Illinois' most important government issues. Don't see what you're looking for? Ask us your burning questions about Illinois government.
What are term limits?
Term limits are legal restrictions put in place to limit the number of years an incumbent can serve in elected office. Term limits essentially serve two purposes. First, they are set as statutory limitations to ensure that the same individual is not in the same public office for more than a specific number of years. Second, they serve as a preemptive step to preclude officeholders from accumulating and yielding a certain degree of power within their respective legislative chambers. This, in turn, is intended to prevent abuse of power.
The U.S. president is the only elected federal official with a limit on the number of years he or she can serve in office. The 22nd Amendment limits an elected president to two terms in office (eight years). Term limits do not apply to the U.S. Congress and members of Congress, therefore, can run for re-election as many times as they want. Therefore, while states can impose term limits on their elected state officials, they cannot impose term limits on their members of Congress.
Does Illinois have term limits?
Illinois does not have term limits.
The Illinois General Assembly, like the U.S. Congress, consists of two chambers: the Illinois Senate and the Illinois House of Representatives. Term limits do not apply to them.
Each member of the Illinois House of Representatives serves concurrent, two-year terms, meaning all Illinois House seats are up for election every two years.
Illinois Senate term lengths, however, are staggered, which means some, but not all, Illinois Senate seats are up for election every two years. Illinois Senate seats are broken into three groups, each with its own election cycle. These three, staggered election cycles each span a period of ten years–to mirror the cycle of census updates.
Not all districts elect their members simultaneously. Every Senate district elects its members to serve two, four-year terms and one, two-year term per decade, although the sequence of those terms varies depending on the cycle a district's Senate seat is assigned. The three, staggered election cycles take the following permutations:
First Group: Four- year term, four-year term, two-year term
Second Group: Four-year term, two-year term, four-year term
Third Group: Two-year term, four-year term, four-year term
This staggered structure was created in order to avoid a complete turnover in Illinois Senate membership, while, at the same time, ensuring that one-third of all of the Illinois Senate seats are up for election every two years.
Each district’s terms vary and spread out over a decade in the following combinations:
Why does Illinois not have term limits?
Term limits are not mandated by law in any state and the movement to introduce term limits only began in the late 1980s. The first term limits initiatives were passed by Oklahoma, Colorado, and California in 1990. In each state, the imposition of term limits was in response to government dysfunction. Subsequently, eighteen other states joined the movement and imposed term limits in their states.1
However, since then, the term limits movement has considerably lost momentum. The Idaho Legislature repealed term limits in 2002, and the Utah Legislature repealed its term limits the following year in 2003. Additionally, term limits were invalidated by supreme courts in several states, namely, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming.2
This history of term limits shed some light on why Illinois does not have term limits in place: They are not mandated by law, and their scattered existence is perceived as somewhat of a political trend.3 Illinois politicians, generally, have opposed term limits.
The question of whether term limits should be imposed on legislators has been kept off the ballot in Illinois not once, but twice. In 1994, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled a term-limits measure placed on the ballot as unconstitutional because it was “neither ‘procedural’ nor ‘structural’ in subject matter.”4 In 2014, a term-limits amendment was stifled once again when it was thrown off the ballot and subsequently declared unconstitutional by the Illinois First District Appellate Court.
A study by Christopher Z. Mooney at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Springfield attributes the following factors as the impetus for term limits: “public dissatisfaction with high congressional reelection rates and some entrenched state legislative leaders; the renewed popularity of the direct initiative; opportunistic timing by well-heeled policy dilettantes; and the traditional American disregard for politicians.”5
Currently, fifteen states have adopted term limits for state legislators.
States with Legislative Term Limits
In his study, Mooney also says Illinois doesn’t have term limits in place because the state was “fairly stable” in 1992—at a time when other states were implementing legislative term limits—and had a “strong and centralized party leadership structure.”6
He also describes four key features of the Illinois General Assembly, each of which offer insight into why Illinois does not have term limits:
- Illinois’ individualistic political culture;
- The 1980 Cutback Amendment; (a successful effort to decrease the number of state lawmakers)
- Partisan decennial redistricting since 1980; and
- The idiosyncrasies and lengthy tenure of key officials.7
1 Christopher Z. Mooney, State Legislative Term Limits in Illinois? Prospects and Potential Impacts, p. 2 (Dec. 2, 2007).
3 Sam Howe Verhovek, In State Legislatures, 2nd Thoughts on Term Limits, N.Y. Times (May 21, 2001); Tim Jones, Experts: No Evidence Term Limits Cure Political Dysfunction, Better Government Association (Feb. 22, 2017).
4 Evan Garcia, Term Limits: Would They Help or Hurt Illinois?, WTTW Chicago Tonight (Dec. 28, 2016).
5 Mooney, supra note 1, at 1.
6 Christopher Z. Mooney & Tim Storey, The Illinois General Assembly, 1992-2003: Leadership Control, Continuity, and Partisanship, Joint Project on Term Limits 2004, p. 1 (2005).
What are the effects of term limits?
The most prominent effect of term limits is an increase in turnover—the rate at which legislators are replaced. According to a study by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), this increase in turnover is most visible during the first year of term limits’ impact.1
For the purposes of the NCSL study, the year of first impact is determined by the length of the term limit starting from the year it was first enacted. For instance, Arizona first enacted eight-year term limits in 1992. Therefore, the year term limits first applied was in 2000—eight years from the date they were enacted.
The NCSL study notes however, that a spike in turnover rates as a result of term limits is not consistent amongst states and does not last. Instead, as the graph below illustrates, the rate of turnover evens itself out over time.2
Some states might enact term limits in one year, but have them take effect a few years later. In such instances, the year of first impact will be the year in which the term limits actually take effect, not in the year they were enacted. This was the case in Maine for instance, where term limits were enacted in 1993, but took effect in 1996.
This directly affects the rate of turnover.
Some states allow already-serving legislators to be grandfathered in so that their eight-year term limit begins when the legislation is passed—even if they have previously already served 20 years or more. Other states (for e.g. Maine), do not give already-serving legislators as much leeway and by the time term limits come into effect, a large percentage of the membership is already termed out.
THE TURNOVER EFFECT OF TERM LIMITS:
Term limits enable a steady turnover of incumbents. That means elected officials frequently are replaced by newly elected officials after a set period. While proponents of term limits are ardent supporters of this continuous cycle of change, opponents believe constant replacements within the legislature result in more harm than good. Opponents argue when long-standing members of the legislature are removed, their expertise and knowledge are replaced with individuals whose experience may pale in comparison.
Many opponents also believe the turnover makes it harder to form and cultivate relationships with lobbyists, associations, organized groups, fellow legislators, government officials, and advocacy groups.
Under term limits, new lawmakers are continually introduced into the legislature and are, therefore, prevented from becoming seasoned legislators. At a time when the legislative and policy experience of individual lawmakers is at its peak, they are replaced by a host of new members or committee chairs who, while not necessarily inexperienced, do not possess the level of legislative experience and institutional knowledge that only can be developed after serving in the legislature for many years.3
David Valentine, a research associate professor in the Truman School of Public Affairs at University of Missouri who studied the effects of term limits in Missouri, has pointed out some potential pitfalls of term limits, stating: “Many new, inexperienced legislators do not fully understand many of the complex issues for which they must make policy … This often results in legislators relying on lobbyists to educate them on issues, and while most lobbyists do not try to deliberately mislead legislators, the legislators may only get one side of multifaceted issues.”4
In short, the frequent turnover of lawmakers under term limits diminishes the influence of individual lawmakers in the legislature.5 As the tenures of lawmakers diminish, they are increasingly unable to foster relationships, and any meaningful connections they do make during their time in office are lost when their term is up. In contrast, since lobbyists have no restrictions on their lengths of service, they continue to become more informed, and more powerful, benefiting from the expertise and contacts they accumulate over years of grooming inexperienced legislators. As a result, lobbyists may come to wield even greater influence.
Valentine’s views seem to derive from James Madison, who wrote in Federalist 53 that certain lawmaking competence could only be gained through experience in elected office:
“No man can be a competent legislator who does not add to an upright intention and a sound judgment a certain degree of knowledge of the subjects on which he is to legislate. A part of this knowledge may be acquired by means of information which lie within the compass of men in private as well as public stations. Another part can only be attained, or at least thoroughly attained, by actual experience in the station which requires the use of it.”
Finally, as Valentine notes, it is harder for such “inexperienced” legislators to identify problematic legislation and revise or kill it in committees.6 This leads to significant drops in gatekeeping, “the process by which committees screen out poorly crafted or unpopular legislation in order to allow the general membership to focus on a smaller set of bills.”7
In California, for instance, committee gatekeeping has declined significantly due to high turnover among committee chairs.8 The situation in Colorado and Maine, both states that exercise term limits, is similar.
Research indicates that bills introduced on the floor seem to lack substance and do not take broader policy implications and legal consequences into account.9
Strained Relationships within the Legislature:
A different case study10 by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) reported a decline in civility and an increase in conflict in legislatures bound by term limits. In a state with no legislative term limits, the “freshmen legislators” would normally spend their first few years observing—watching, listening, and learning from their peers.11 However, under the time-bound constraints of term limits they were more “aggressive” and harbored expectations of being treated as “full-fledged participants in the legislative process from the moment they [took] their seats on the floor.”12
Legislative Demographics—Minorities and Women:
A popular sentiment held by proponents of term limits is that they lead to an increase in diversity. However, the Joint Project on Term Limits—a collaboration of the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of State Governments, and the State Legislative Leaders Foundation—found that not to be the case. The project notes that term limits have not “led to the new breed of diverse, citizen legislators proponents expected to see.”13 It further notes that there has been no substantial increase in the number of women and minorities, and nor has there been a change in the age and occupational backgrounds of legislators.14
1 Jennifer Drage Bowser, The Effects of Legislative Term Limits, p.112 (2005).
3 Jennifer Drage Bowser, The Effects of Legislative Term Limits, p. 115 (2005); Jennifer Drage Bowser et al., Coping With Term Limits, a Practical Guide, national conference of state legislatures, p. 2 (Aug. 2006).
4Michael McNutt, Legislative Term Limits A Bad Idea, Research Professor Says, NewsOK (Feb.5, 2012).
7 Bruce E. Kain & Thad Kousser, Adapting to Term Limits in California: Recent Experiences and New Directions, Joint Project on Term Limits, 2004, national conference of state legislatures, p. 30 (2005).
9 Whet Moser, Would Term Limits Save or Doom our Legislature?, Chicago Magazine (dec.2, 2016).
10 Jennifer Drage Bowser et al., Coping With Term Limits, A Practical Guide, national conference of state legislatures, p. 2 (Aug. 2006).
Why are term limits popular?
One of the primary reasons term limits are popular amongst voters is because it is believed they ensure a steady turnover among legislators, thereby preventing them from accumulating an unfair amount of political power over a long period of time. It is also believed that having term limits in place makes the legislative election process more competitive.
Proponents of term limits argue that veteran incumbents have an unfair advantage and discourage new candidates from standing for election. As noted above, many people also believe that, over time, term limits allow more turnover which, in turn, will make way for a wider represented range of demographics including minorities and women.1
A poll conducted by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University revealed that an overwhelmingly large number of Illinois voters are in favor of term limits.2 A poll of 865 likely voters found 80.5 percent favored limiting Illinois House and Senate members to eight years in office.3 The overarching sentiment for term limits reflected in that poll does not greatly differ from another poll the Institute conducted in 2014. It revealed that “six in ten Illinois voters strongly favor term limits for state legislators”4 and that support for term limits was strong among Republicans (89.9 percent strongly or somewhat in favor), as well as Democrats (73.4 percent strongly or somewhat in favor).5
David Yepsen, the then-director of the Institute, was quoted as saying, “Regardless of your position on term limits, it’s clear the idea has support. If organizers are able to get the measure on the ballot—and it’s not clear the courts will allow that—it should be easy for them to win approval.”6
1 NextGen Illinois, Legislative Reform.
2 Doug Finke, Poll Finds Illinois Voters Support Term Limits, Remap Reform, The State Journal-Register (Oct.5, 2016).
3 Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, (Oct.5, 2016). Gas Tax “Lockbox,” Term Limits and Independent Redistricting Draw Big Support [Press Release]. Retrieved from: http://paulsimoninstitute.siu.edu/_common/documents/opinion-polling/simon-institute-poll/2016/oct-5-psppi-simon-poll-gas-tax.pdf.
4 Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, (April 7, 2014). Illinois Voters Continue to Favor Legislative Term Limits [Press Release]. Retrieved from:
Why are term limits an issue in Illinois?
The arguments used by term-limit proponents also are applicable to the state of Illinois. However, term limits remain a hot-button issue in Illinois because they are promoted by citizens and some public officials, like current Gov. Bruce Rauner. He initially campaigned promising “eight years and out.” Since taking office, he also has pushed for an amendment—a proposition that was ruled as unconstitutional by the Illinois Supreme Court.1
Rauner also is strongly opposed to current Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, who has served in that power position since 1983 with the exception of one, two-year break. Proponents of term limits frequently point to Madigan’s term as the longest-serving legislative leader in the United States as a prime example of why the state of Illinois should adopt term limits.
A number of other representatives and senators have been in the Illinois House2 and Senate3 for 20 years or more. Turnover in Illinois is so low that more than 90 percent of house and senate races have had only one candidate or token opposition on the general election ballot in recent years.4
Given that a relatively small number of staff is devoted to individual Illinois lawmakers—with most of that staff concentrated toward legislative leaders instead—the imposition of term limits and frequent turnover likely would diminish the influence of individual lawmakers in the legislature.5
Generally, as the tenures of existing lawmakers diminish, and new individuals are introduced into the legislature, they are increasingly unable to foster relationships, and any meaningful connections they do make during their time in office are lost when their term is up. In contrast, since lobbyists have no restrictions on their lengths of service, they tend to become more informed, and more powerful, benefiting from the expertise and contacts they accumulate over years of grooming inexperienced legislators.
1 Mike Riopell, Rauner’s Term Limits Plan Rejected, Daily Herald (Aug.22, 2014).
2 Illinois General Assembly, Current House Members.
3 Illinois General Assembly, Current Senate Members.
4 See Tim Jones & Patrick Judge, Gerrymandering in Illinois: New Numbers Challenge Conventional Wisdom, Better Government Association (Aug.30, 2017) (“In recent election cycles, more than 90 percent of races for the Illinois House were either uncontested or involved only token challenges to an incumbent. That phenomenon benefits Democrats in the Chicago area, where the bulk of the state's population resides, and Republicans Downstate.”).
5 Michael McNutt, Legislative Term Limits A Bad Idea, Research Professor Says, NewsOK (Feb.5, 2012).
What is currently on the table?
In January 2017, members of the Illinois Senate passed Senate Resolution 3 (SR3) that sought to impose term limits only upon the top leadership positions in that chamber.
SR3 states that no person will be elected to the office of Senate President for more than five General Assemblies1 and that no senator can serve as the Senate Minority Leader for more than five General Assemblies.2 Because General Assembly sessions last for two years, the resolution, therefore, mandated that the people elected to the top two Senate positions can only serve for 10 years, or five terms.
It should be noted that this was a change only in internal Senate rules, not a change in law. Changes in Senate rules can be altered with a simple majority vote.
Furthermore, the resolution did not apply to the House of Representatives or House Speaker Mike Madigan, who has held that powerful post for all but two years since 1983.
1 Illinois S. Res. 3 (Jan.11, 2017)