“If I’m elected president I will push for a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress,” Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump told a campaign rally on Tuesday. Under his plan, members of the House would be limited to three terms, and senators would be able to serve only two.
It’s a common proposal, often offered by Republican candidates — Mitt Romney also supported term limits. But it is also a recipe for a federal legislature that is less competent, less collegial, more susceptible to corruption, and more dependent on self-interested lobbyists. A number of state legislatures implemented term limits, and those states’ experiences reveal what is likely to happen if members of Congress face similar limits.
A 2006 National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) report, pointedly titled “Coping With Term Limits: A Practical Guide,” lays out many of the consequences of imposing such limits on elected officials. For one thing, term limits are an excellent way to foster more partisan rancor.
Term limits, the report warned, can result in a “decline in civility” which has “reduced legislators’ willingness and ability to compromise and engage in consensus building.” This decline in collegial relationships occurs for the simple reason that lawmakers have “less time to get to know and trust one another,” and less motivation to form relationships since the colleague they build a strong working relationship with today will not be around for very long. As a result, term-limited lawmakers “are less collegial and less likely to bond with their peers, particularly those from across the aisle.”
With less time in office, these lawmakers also do not have time to become experts on policy or on the inner workings of the legislature where they serve. Moreover, because all of their fellow lawmakers are also term-limited, they have no senior colleagues they can rely on for advice on policy matters or legislative procedure. This problem “forces term-limited legislators to rely on lobbyists for information.” As ThinkProgress previously explained,
Unlike the lawmakers themselves, a lobbyist can spend years shepherding legislation towards passage. They are likely to know far more about how a particular government program functions or why a particular appropriation exists than an inexperienced lawmaker. And they may know far more about legislative procedure than anyone who actually serves in the legislature.
By eliminating senior lawmakers, term limits also remove an important check on lobbyists. Ordinarily, NCSL explains, lobbyists rely “upon their reputation to effectively do their jobs.” Misleading a lawmaker “can lead to a loss of credibility that quickly ends a lobbying career,” as word quickly spreads around the legislature that that particular lobbyist is not to be trusted. For this reason, good lobbyists have an incentive “to use reliable information and provide legislators with all sides of a policy debate” when dealing with lawmakers who are not term-limited. Doing otherwise could cause the lobbyist to lose access.
Without long-serving lawmakers, however, a dishonest lobbyist’s reputation resets every few years. There are no senior lawmakers to warn their relatively junior colleagues away from certain advocates. And, even if individual lawmakers do learn not to trust a particular lobbyist, the weaker interpersonal networks that exist in term-limited legislatures prevent that lobbyist’s reputation from spreading. The result, NCSL found, is that “short-term lobbying goals have come [to] outweigh the importance of long-term credibility” in term-limited legislatures.
Why not score a win today, if you don’t have to be worried about your reputation tomorrow?
So, whatever superficial appeal Trump’s proposal may have, legislative term limits have been empirically tested, and we know what kind of legislatures they produce. Term limits mean ignorant lawmakers who are simultaneously distrustful of each other and reliant on dishonest advocates.