All Commentary
Tuesday, May 1, 2001

Why Term Limits?

Politicians who must return to ordinary society will think more carefully about their actions.

Early in the 1990s a grassroots movement to limit the terms of elected officials in various public offices blossomed nationwide. Term-limit ballot initiatives passed in 19 states, usually by landslide margins. The U.S. Supreme Court threw out all state-imposed term limits on federal positions in 1995, but those for state and local offices were affirmed.

The Citizen-Legislator

The term-limits movement has slowed in recent years, and in a growing number of states the political establishment is fighting back. Quietly in most cases, lawmakers are starting to talk up the idea of extending the length of terms voters chose to limit, or to repeal the restrictions altogether. But the reasons the term-limit concept caught on in the first place remain as potent as ever.

It was Benjamin Franklin who summed up the best case for term limits more than two centuries ago: “In free governments, the rulers are the servants, and the people their superiors . . . . For the former to return among the latter does not degrade, but promote them.”

Opponents of term limits are frequently the same interests who milk government for all they can get.

In other words, when politicians know they must return to ordinary society and live under the laws passed while they were in government, at least some of them will think more carefully about the long-term effects of the programs they support. Their end-all will not be re-election, because that option will not be available.

Nationally, the notion of the “citizen-legislator” remains a popular vision. The public is justifiably cynical about the hollow promises of so many lifelong professional politicians who are often purchased with special-interest money. Opponents of term limits are frequently the same interests who milk government for all they can get, such as defense contractors in Washington or the teacher unions in state capitals.

Opponents charge that limits are inherently antidemocratic, that people should be free to elect to office whomever they want and that voters inherently have the power to limit terms simply by voting incumbents out. But judging by the huge support that term limits have usually won at the ballot box—and still enjoy in most local polls—large numbers of citizens feel that a political system without limits is a stacked deck. Any system that allows incumbents to amass so much power and attention in office that challengers can rarely win is surely in need of a corrective.

Anti-Term-Limit Arguments

Term-limit advocates properly point out that we already fix all sorts of restrictions on who can and cannot hold office, no matter how popular they may be—from age and residency requirements to two four-year terms for the president. Indeed, it isn’t widely understood that term limits is an old concept. With regard to municipal offices, it dates back at least to 1851, when the Indiana state constitution imposed them for almost every elected county office.

A 1998 report from the Cato Institute offered an intriguing response to the “We don’t need term limits because we can simply vote the bums out” argument. Author Einer Elhauge states, “Districts with highly senior legislators often impose externalities [burdens such as higher taxes] on other districts by securing the enactment of provisions the other districts dislike either on ideological grounds or because they bear the financial cost . . . . Voting your bum out is not a solution when what you want to do is oust the other districts’ bums. For that you need term limits, which oust the other districts’ more senior bums and thus strongly increase equality in legislative representation.”

Term limits have been approved almost everywhere they’ve been on the ballot.

Without long-term legislators, according to another anti-term-limit argument, “inexperienced” legislators won’t be able to control the permanent bureaucracy. That’s a red herring. Legislators ultimately control the purse and the power to control the bureaucrats any time they want to, and we must not overlook the unholy alliances built up between bureaucracies and long-term legislators. Surely, the “experience” of living as a private citizen under the rules and taxes one voted for as a legislator is just as valuable and instructive, if not more so, than the experience of cooking up those rules and taxes in the first place.

Term limits have been approved almost everywhere they’ve been on the ballot because concerned citizens see them as a positive structural reform, a necessary step to change the incentives of legislators so they would think more about the good of their states and country and less about their next campaign. Those citizens want to ensure a regular supply of fresh blood and new ideas in legislative bodies. They want to open the system to more people from a variety of professions. They want to make public officials less responsive to organized, well-heeled lobbies and more interested in serving the welfare of society at large.

Term Limits and Individual Liberty

But what about that paramount issue of great interest to readers of this magazine—the issue of individual liberty? Do term limits enhance or detract from its protection?

Term limits are helpful to the cause of individual liberty.

For sure, people in a free and democratic society ultimately get the government they vote for. Term limits cannot guarantee either individual liberty or good government if voters with bad ideas replace bad legislators with other bad people. Ben Franklin may have supported term limits, but he also believed, with John Philpot Curran, that in any event, “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.”

However, the evidence suggests that at the margin, term limits are helpful to the cause of individual liberty. Elhauge’s report showed that term limits lessen the influence of seniority. His research demonstrated that long-term lawmakers from both major parties vote for more bureaucracy than do lawmakers who have been in office for shorter times. Term limits lessen the ability of lawmakers to develop cozy deals with either bureaucracies or special interests that seek to get something from government at everyone else’s expense.

Stephen Moore, writing for the Cato Institute, says that an examination of the voting behavior of congressmen reveals that on a wide range of liberty-related issues—“not raising the minimum wage, defunding the National Endowment for the Arts, closing down the Legal Services Corporation, and cutting taxes—junior members [are] less likely to vote to tax, spend, regulate and otherwise stick Washington’s nose in our private affairs than [are] the old bulls.”

Term limits do not yet exist for members of Congress. Do we need a reminder that long-term pols with lots of “experience” in Washington have blessed Americans with trillions in debt and a federal government that sucks more and more from our wallets year after year after year?

It says a lot that virtually every group that lobbies for more government power and wealth redistribution opposes term limits. When they buy a lawmaker, they want him to stay bought and stick around a while.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is