Experts: No Evidence Term Limits Cure Political Dysfunction

Illinois’ governor demands term limits as part of the price for any budget deal, but experts say capping lawmaker tenure emboldens special interests and is no magic bullet to cure what ails the state.

John Martin was the Mike Madigan of Maine, the entrenched Speaker of the House of Representatives whose long tenure in office enraged critics and inspired a push for term limits.

With the fury of a pitchfork wielding mob, citizens in Maine voted by a 2-to-1 margin in 1993 to slap limits on the times lawmakers could be re-elected. But a generation later, the now 75-year-old Martin is still in office, using a loophole in a law designed to clean house to instead bounce back and forth between legislative chambers.

This is among the often-overlooked aspects of term limits, the throw-the-bums-out approach to governance that Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has embraced. Rauner insists on placing a binding term limits referendum on the 2018 ballot as a precondition to ending a state budget stalemate now in its 20th month. 

“Term limits get job-creators excited,”  Rauner told the Illinois General Assembly recently as he outlined budget plans for the coming year. “Passing term limits is one of the most important things we can do to send a positive recruiting message to job-creators. It’s a new day in Illinois. We’ve turned the corner.” 

 
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner
   Bruce Rauner

Polls across the nation, including in Illinois, show strong voter support for such limits, yet the last state to adopt them was Nebraska in 2000. Meanwhile, some states that earlier imposed term limits have considered extending the length of time their legislators can serve, with Arkansas voters actually giving a green light to that in a 2014 ballot measure.

Term limits may evoke a selfless, public-spirited imagery straight out of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” But the reality often falls short.

“It’s not like Joe Blow who’s running the car dealership goes to the legislature and then returns after three terms. It doesn’t work that way,” said Chris Mooney, director of the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

Mooney has studied the impact of term limits for the National Conference of State Legislatures and says the claims of fundamental improvements – less spending, more diversity in membership, a smoother-running government – haven’t materialized.

More than two-thirds of states, both red and blue, don’t have term limits for lawmakers. Some in that category, like Texas, Minnesota and Indiana, are recognized for strong economies and fiscal responsibility. On the flip side, states like Louisiana and Oklahoma that do impose term limits are grappling with large budget deficits.

“As a group, do term-limited states have better budgets or lower poverty rates or stronger economies? No,” said David Yepsen, the former director of Southern Illinois University’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. “It remains very popular, and it’s a good trumpeting tool to express outrage, but there’s no indication that these things work.”

As a mechanism for refreshing the political talent pool, term limits in theory cull the political herd but in practice may not change much. In many states, lawmakers can legally subvert the spirit of restrictions by ping-ponging between legislative chambers.

Martin of Maine is a prime example. After 30 years in the state house, he left office in 1994 following the enactment of term limits. Four years later he was back in the state Senate, where he stayed for 10 years and served in a leadership position until he hit his time limit and returned to the House.

States with term limits for legislators

Click states to see the limits and when they were passed | Information from National Conference of State Legislatures

 Map by Jared Rutecki | BGA

The notion of term limits arose from a cauldron of public discontent with government in the early 1990s that was not all that different from that experienced today. Voters in California, Colorado and Oklahoma were first to approve tenure restrictions, spurred by government dysfunction and a spate of scandals.

Eighteen more states followed, resulting in the term-limited exits of more than 2,700 lawmakers from 1996 through 2014, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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After Nebraska joined the bandwagon 17 years ago, however, the trend hit a wall. Since then, legislatures in Utah and Idaho have repealed term limits, courts in four other states ruled them unconstitutional, and then those Arkansas voters opted to give their lawmakers more breathing room before limits kicked in.  

Now comes Rauner, arguing limits are part of the structural reform needed to shake Illinois from the clutches of corruption and political dysfunction.

To be sure, Illinois boasts an array of legislative barnacles from both parties. Madigan, a Democrat, was first elected to the House in 1971 and has served as speaker during all but two years since 1983. Democratic Senate President John Cullerton took office in 1991.

On the other side of the aisle, Republican Senate leader Christine Radogno is in in her 20th year in office while House Republican leader Jim Durkin has logged 17 years in that chamber.

Michael Madigan, John Cullerton, Christine Radogno and Jim Durkin

From left: Michael Madigan, John Cullerton, Christine Radogno and Jim Durkin

The argument Rauner now uses to force change in Illinois was used long ago in Ohio where powerful Democratic state Rep. Vern Riffe served 27 years in the house, 20 of them as speaker, and used his influence to channel government funds to his corner of the state.

With Riffe in mind, Ohio voters by a huge margin approved term limits in 1992. The limitation restricts lawmakers to 8 years of consecutive service, but also allows them to return to office after sitting out four years.

“At the time it sounded patriotic, it sounded right – let’s clean house,” is how Michael Curtin, the former editor of the Columbus Dispatch, described the public mood as the issue was presented to voters in 1992.

Curtin, who served two terms himself in the Ohio House after retiring from daily journalism, said the limits on tenure weakened the effectiveness of the legislature while shifting power and influence to lobbyists and Ohio’s governor.

“Legislators today know less, they’re more timid than they used to be,” Curtin said. “It’s a flushing mechanism,” he said, referring to the 169 members who were term limited out between 1996 and 2014.

The exit of so many lawmakers is the most measurable change in state legislatures in decades, said a 2007 report from the NCSL More difficult to gauge is the day-to-day operating impact.

In Maine, a 2004 study from the NCSL and the University of Maine found that legislators elected under term limits “are more partisan and ideological than in the past.” That echoes an observation from Maine Gov. Paul LePage, himself a hard-edged Republican partisan, who nonetheless has lamented the polarizing effect of term-limits.

Two decades of term limits delivered “young people with firm agendas” who are “hurting us in the long haul,” LePage complained in a 2014 speech in which he also lauded Martin’s long experience in the Maine legislature as an asset. Martin, LePage argued, was someone who “knew what worked and didn’t work.”

Michigan voters also easily adopted term limits in 1992, enacting caps of six years for House members and eight for state senators.

John Cherry, a Democrat from the Flint area, was among those impacted by the caps, leaving the legislature in 2002 after serving 20 years. But that same year he was elected Michigan’s lieutenant governor, a position he held until 2011. Cherry’s wife is now a state representative.

Cherry said the practical effect of term limits is two-fold. First, he said, members elected to the House get to like the $71,685 annual salary and start to angle for a Senate run six years later when term limits kick in. Second, he said, restricting the time members can stay in the legislature hinders the ability or the inclination to address complex issues.

Exhibit A, he said, lay in a recent warning from a state commission appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder that Michigan faced a $59.6 billion infrastructure funding gap over the next 20 years. Cherry said the political aversion to raising taxes or fees to maintain roads and other services has convinced many lawmakers to “kick the can down the road” rather than jeopardize the loss of a good salary.

“Infrastructure has suffered more than anything else in Michigan because you have to raise fees to maintain it,” said Cherry, whose old senate district in Flint is now grappling with the cost of a crumbling water system that poisoned the city’s water supply. “The influence has shifted to lobbyists, and anything complex is made more difficult to deal with.”

Still, term limits remain very popular with voters. The special interest group U.S. Term Limits, the primary advocate for the restrictions, said in January that every local term limit ballot measure across the nation – 40 of them governing local school boards, mayors and city and county boards – received voter approval in November and most by big margins.

“The American people are tired of career politicians forgetting who they are supposed to be serving,” Philip Blumel, the group’s president, said in statement. “It is no surprise, after this historic year for term limits, that action is already underway to slap term limits on Congress.”

Any such congressional push comes with a back to the future caveat. In the 1990s, voters in nearly two dozen states approved limits on U.S. House and Senate terms, only to be blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled that states lack the authority to impose such restrictions on a federal office.

On a similar track, however, then Republican leader Newt Gingrich engineered a GOP takeover of the House in 1994 with what he called a Contract with American that touted a promise of a constitutional amendment to impose 12- year term limits. Under Gingrich as House speaker, however, it never happened. 

Dozens of Republicans also ran for Congress in that era on a pledge to voluntarily limit their time in office, though many later walked away from the pledge. Among them was Illinois Republican John Shimkus, elected in 1996 from a district in the St. Louis suburbs, who remains in the House 21 years later.

The high-water mark for term limits was 1992, when Democrats controlled 29 state legislatures. Today the dominance has flipped, with Republicans controlling 32, and – beyond Illinois – the talk of imposing them on state lawmakers has quieted.

Curtin, the former Ohio journalist and legislator, said the Republican resurgence explains why term limit fever has largely broken when it comes to legislatures. “It was very strategically driven to break Democratic power,” Curtin said. “Republicans achieved what they wanted to achieve.”