Gov. Larry Hogan says instituting term limits for legislators will reduce partisanship, prevent gerrymandering, stifle corruption, increase accountability and return Annapolis to the founders’ vision of democracy. He didn’t specifically mention it, but we suppose it will also lead to fresher breath, whiter whites and peace in the Middle East.
Term limits are not a new idea; more than 20 states have adopted them at one point or another, mostly starting in the 1990s. But they have fallen out of favor in recent years for a simple reason: They don’t accomplish any of the things Governor Hogan or other backers of the idea promise, and they come with some unexpected and unwelcome side effects.
A variety of studies of states that have instituted term limits find that the policy may change the faces in the legislature’s seats, but it doesn’t much change the sorts of people who fill them in terms of background, profession, political orientation or (with some exceptions) race and gender. And it has not transformed those legislatures into models of representative democracy. California, for example, has had term limits since 1990, and its legislature was famously dysfunctional for most of that time.
Though term limits are sold as a means to make legislators more independent of special interests and partisan agendas, they have accomplished precisely the opposite. Researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit spent a dozen years examining the impact of Michigan’s term limits on the behavior of lawmakers there, and they found that as experience and institutional knowledge among legislators disappeared, the influence of lobbyists increased. Lobbyists became a more important source of information about policy issues and, despite the fact that they weren’t able to develop long-term relationships with term limited lawmakers, they wielded more influence than before. Meanwhile, a Public Policy Institute of California study found that special interest money flowed to legislative leaders just as it always had. The idea that legislators won’t care as much about partisan or special interests because they will enter public service with the expectation of returning to private life hasn’t panned out either. A University of Missouri Public Policy Institute study of that state’s experience with term limits found, to the contrary, an uptick in lawmakers looking toward their next perch, whether it was in the other chamber of the legislature, a government or lobbying job, or a run for state-wide office.
Numerous studies have noted that the absence of long-tenured committee chairs tended to lead to more poorly considered legislation because they lacked the necessary subject matter expertise. In several states, researchers found a shift in power toward the upper chamber of the legislature because lawmakers there tended to be former members of the lower chamber and thus were more experienced. In California, for example, bills that sailed out of the Assembly were routinely gutted in the Senate. Yet at the same time, the political control of legislative leaders increased, Missouri researchers found, because of their heavy involvement in recruiting and funding candidates for office.
Proponents of term limits (which had their genesis in grassroots conservative politics) argue that citizen legislators would be less oriented toward big government and would restrain spending. But researchers at Penn State and Stanford found no discernible impact on states’ spending trajectory after they adopted term limits, and no change after they were repealed or struck down in a half-dozen states. In California, researchers found a general breakdown in fiscal discipline and a reduced likelihood that legislators would seek to alter the governor’s spending proposal. Indeed, despite the fact that states with legislative term limits also tend to have limits for governors, the policy has tended to increase the influence of the executive and decrease the legislature’s oversight of government agencies. Mr. Hogan may find that appealing for personal reasons, but we doubt he would argue that’s good for governance.
Even if we throw aside the ample evidence from other states, we ask, what problem is Mr. Hogan trying to solve? Governors drive the gerrymandering bus in Maryland, and they would only do so more effectively under legislative term limits (unless a miracle occurs and the General Assembly adopts Mr. Hogan’s redistricting reform proposal). We may this year be dealing with a corruption case involving a long-term legislator, Sen. Nathaniel Oaks, but last year, authorities leveled corruption charges against one man who served less than a year in the House of Delegates and campaign finance charges against another before he was even sworn into the House. The current presiding officers of the House and Senate may have record-long tenures, but 40 percent of the House was new in 2015, along with 25 percent of the Senate, and both have seen additional turnover since. That’s not an aberration. Both chambers have seen turnover of greater than 19 percent in every election since at least 1986, with a high of 38 percent in the Senate and 43 percent in the House in 1994.
That’s because we have term limits already. Legislators are limited to the number of terms voters want to elect them for, and that’s the way it should stay.