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Friday, March 1, 1991

Term-of-Office Limits Wont Reduce Government Abuse

Professor Galles teaches economics at Pepperdine University, Malibu, California.

Public outrage at an increasingly irresponsible government, especially at long-term incumbents who seem immune to re-election pressures, has led to a rising wave of sentiment to limit the number of terms elected officials can serve. An Oklahoma term limitation initiative received 67 percent of the vote last September, and similar referenda in November won in California (53 percent) and Colorado (71 percent).

Term limitation measures will clear out those who cannot grandfather themselves in, throwing many of those symbolizing the system’s failings out of office (probably into lucrative lobbying careers). They also will eliminate Congressional Methuselahs in the future. But it is not clear that they will lead to a more responsible government.

Term limitations are unlikely to contribute much to fixing our nation’s governance problems because these failings are primarily rooted in what the government is allowed to do, not in which particular members do it for how long. The central problem is that long-standing Constitutional constraints limiting government power have been progressively eroded, so that government has increasingly turned from being the protector of the property fights of its citizens against the violations of others to being itself a pervasive violator of those rights. The resulting ability to help your friends at others’ expense leads to the abuse of government power regardless of how long any individual may stay in an elective office.

Consider Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, granting Congress the power to levy “uniform taxes” to provide for the “general welfare.” In contrast, today’s tax code is fiddled with discriminatory taxes designed to burden particular subgroups of the population, following the dictum: “Don’t tax you. Don’t tax me. Tax the fellow behind that tree.” Furthermore, a large share of government expenditures, such as the multi-billion dollar agricultural price support programs, are designed to benefit certain groups at taxpayers’ expense. There is nothing in the Constitution that even hints that using general tax revenue for the provision of benefits to such special interests is a legitimate Federal function. But the fact that such policies are now considered acceptable (even commendable, by the beneficiaries) leads to abusive government.

Consider also the Fifth Amendment’s statement: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” While this prevents the government from physically taking your property without payment, current court interpretations let the government take large parts of its value to benefit particular special interests through regulations and restrictions (such as rent-control laws, which may not physically take apartments from their owners, but which transfer much of their value to current tenants). This ability to regulate costs onto others in order to help supporters is another source of abusive government.

Similar reinterpretations have befallen other parts of the Constitution, such as the contracts and commerce clauses, which essentially have been transformed from barriers against government intrusion into open invitations under almost any pretext. Again, the effect has been to expand the power of legislators and bureaucrats into areas our Founding Fathers tried to put beyond their reach.

The result of such changes has been an increase in the power of a few government officials to do what our Constitution formerly ruled out, and this has led to governance that is a far cry from one primarily concerned with promoting the general welfare. Once these powers have been seized by government, concentrating them further in illimitable legislators can worsen the results. But reforms such as term limits would not solve the underlying problem: government theft (involuntary transactions where some are made worse off is a necessary Corollary of violating either the takings clause or the general welfare requirement); it would only alter who would be allowed to do it.

As term limits became law, parties could control seats through a series of candidates instead of through particular party members, especially as squeezing party contributors and gerrymandering become more precise sciences. Substituting party power for that of individual members may well move our government farther from its Constitutional ideal. Term limits could also make legislators even more keenly aware of their future job prospects, increasing special interest influence over those involved in current legislation. Further, making all elected officials more transitory would increase the power of the unelected, permanent bureaucracy, hardly a prescription for more responsible government.

Reforms such as term limits attempt to address aspects of irresponsible government that are unfortunately far from its core. Unless the Constitution’s restrictions on government powers are taken more seriously, term limitations will do little to produce a more responsible government. In fact, absent a return to the more limited role for government envisioned in the Constitution, there are no “reforms” that are likely to substantially reduce government abuse.

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).