Conservatives have pushed for term limits to rein in government largesse and a majority of Americans support the idea. But the cure could be worse than the disease.
Research by Jeff Cummins, a political science professor at California State University in Fresno, found that term limits for legislators promoted government overspending rather than restraining it. His study was published in the May issue of American Politics Research.
Term limits could lead to poorer fiscal health because potentially talented lawmakers are removed from office despite voters' wishes. Term limits could also promote budget problems because lawmakers are less concerned with the longer budgetary outlook when their own career has a set expiration date.
"Term limits push out those lawmakers with experience and policy expertise that would normally be so instrumental in working out compromises and sound policy," Cummins told Raw Story. "The experience drain reverberates throughout a legislature from the leaders, who may not know which solutions are viable, to the rank-and-file, who have weaker relationships with the leaders and less incentive to go along with them."
"Term limits also encourage legislative myopia because legislators realize they will have shorts stints in office and need to seek policies with an immediate payoff that may not be in line with the long term budget health of the state," he added.
Fifteen states currently prohibit legislators from serving more than a certain number of years in a legislative body. The length of the term limit varies. Michigan has a 6 year limit, while California has a 12 year limit.
For his study, Cummins examined the annual budget data of 49 states from 1983 to 2008. Nebraska was excluded from the analysis because it uniquely has a unicameral and nonpartisan legislature, making it impossible to control for partisan variables.
The analysis uncovered a link between term limits and fiscal problems. In particular, Cummins found that "as the turn-over produced by term limits increases, state general fund balances decline, leaving these states more vulnerable to economic downturns and other budget shocks."
The effect was most pronounced in lower-chambers, such as state Assemblies and Houses, while it appeared to be "somewhat blunted" in upper-chambers, which typically include more experienced lawmakers.
Proponents of term limits, such as U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), have argued they would force legislators to be accountable to their constituents. But Cummins said such a claim was dubious.
"Regarding the effects of term limits on accountability, this research does not speak directly that question," he explained to Raw Story. "I think a strong argument can be made that term limits hurts accountability because legislators no longer have the incentive to respond to the policy wishes of their constituents, but there is not conclusive evidence of that. Voters certainly don't get the chance to hold termed-out legislators accountable for their behavior so we would assume there is less accountability, but, again, the evidence is mixed."
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