What’s so Bad about Term Limits?

President Trump made term limits the first priority in a list of approximately 18 tasks to accomplish within his first 100 days.[1] With Senator Cruz (R-TX) recently proposing an amendment to the Constitution to limit senators to two terms and representatives to three, it is time to consider the proposal on its merits.[2]

Ted Cruz

Sen. Cruz Proposed an Amendment limiting Senators to two 6-year terms and Representatives to three 2-year terms

Term limits will worsen, not solve our political problems. Imposing term limits would increase the incentives for corruption, weaken the system of representation, diminish the quality of representatives and further entrench the bureaucracy.

Corruption and Lobbyists:

Proponents argue that if a politician has an exit date from office then he will be less susceptible to lobbyist corruption. However, term limits would more likely increase the incentive to capitulate to special interests and bribes, not insulate politicians from such influences.

Term limit advocates believe lobbyists can control a politician’s vote by spending money on campaigns. This assumes that such spending actually influences the way a politician will vote, and that this spending works against the interests of the people the politician represents. Neither of these is particularly true.

First, voting keeps a politician in office, not money. Without question money plays a significant part in fostering positive or negative public opinion, but companies do not vote, nor can they buy themselves more votes by spending more money. Money may influence the result, it does not guarantee it, ex. Meg Whitman in the California governor race of 2010.[3]

Second, if politicians were so corrupted by special interests that they had become unaccountable, we would expect to see incumbents regularly re-elected and low individual approval ratings i.e. the special interests buying their candidate into office against the will of the people. This is not the case. Gallup polls show that while congress’ approval ratings are consistently low as a group (ranging between 17%-25%), the average approval rating of individual representatives is between 54-62%, which is enough to get them re-elected every time.[4] One of several conclusions is possible from this information: either lobbyists interests are adverse to the people but do not have a significant and continuing effect upon politicians, or their effect is not adverse to the wishes of the constituents. Either way, the politicians are still popular enough among their voters to win their votes, quite apart from special interests.

Third, the amount of money spent by lobbyists will not be affected by term limits, because the incentive structure is still the same; the risks and rewards of influencing a powerful government to grant favors, contracts, or exemptions would change only if the powers of the Federal government were reduced. If there was less to gain by influencing politics, the money would be better spent elsewhere. So long as the government powers is great, so long will there be an incentive to influence its powers. Changing one person for another does nothing to affect this.

Weakened Democracy:

The single most important principle of representative government is the ability of people to choose who they want to lead and represent them. This principle allows for efficient and accountable government. Term limits significantly weaken this principle. Such policies effectively patronize the people by allowing them a few chances to choose who they like, and then denying them that choice after an arbitrary amount of time.

James Madison

Madison believed frequent, regular elections were the ultimate check upon government power.


In addition to denying the people the choice of who they want, term limits would inhibit progress in congress, not foster it; while Ted Cruz may opine that the Founders envisioned a Congress with a ‘citizen legislature’ without any “career politicians”, there is little evidence that even the first congress worked out that way.[5] The workings of a national government are complex, and the experience needed to familiarize a person with the processes, interests and policies to create and implement effective policy will not come about over a period of six years. Politicians need time to become effective in office. John Adams, James Madison, George Washington, Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin were all “career politicians” and our country was much better off for it. Shortening the time a person can spend in office will shorten their ability to become effective.

The Establishment Bureaucracy:

Term limits, it is theorized, will create an incentive for new congressmen to reclaim powers previously delegated to the President and the unelected bureaucracy.[6] This is unlikely. Term limits would change who is in office, but they would not change the power structure or improve the way congressmen vote.

When congressmen vote they must balance their personal views against the wishes of their constituents. But whether they vote rashly or prudently is tied to whether they will face the wrath of voters come re-election. Term limits would remove this incentive. They will have no reason to struggle to reclaim powers and accountability if they will not be in office long enough to use those powers.

In sum, term limits will do nothing positive to change the incentives for congressmen to vote: they will make them less accountable in their final term, will not encourage them reclaim powers they’ve given up, will not change the incentive to spend money lobbying and campaigning, and will harm the democratic process. Real change is possible, but this is not the way to do it. Structural change should be directed at the powers of the Federal government, not limiting the choices of the people.

[1] http://www.npr.org/2016/11/09/501451368/here-is-what-donald-trump-wants-to-do-in-his-first-100-days


[3] http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/11/03/navarrette.california.whitman/index.html

[4] http://www.gallup.com/poll/162362/americans-down-congress-own-representative.aspx

[5] https://www.cruz.senate.gov/?p=press_release&id=2940

[6] http://www.learnliberty.org/blog/why-congressional-term-limits-could-limit-presidential-power/

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