L. Neil Smith's
Number 215, March 17, 2003


Term Limits Serve as Brake and Ignition—Not Cure-all
A Primer for Libertarian Skeptics
by Stacie Rumenap

Special to TLE

Most establishmentarian-type politicians bitterly oppose term limits. That's because term limits curb the power of career politicians and open the door to a less power-hungry breed of representative.

Yet even some libertarian critics offer little more than the billion-times-served cliche that "we already have term limits, they're called elections," despite the overwhelming institutional advantages that accrue to incumbent politicians, especially in district-level contests. Indeed, each year a great many U.S. representatives and state legislators suffer no electoral opposition to speak of. Any dictator presiding over empty electoral rituals would be happy to endorse the principle that "we already have term limits, they're called elections."

Steve Trinward's recent article "Term Limits Reconsidered" is a refreshing change from this approach. If I object, it's not so much because Mr. Trinward's concerns are unreasonable, as that they are slightly off-target. The problem is the nature of the political beast, not a specific reform's attempt to tame that beast; yet in his article the distinction is not always clear.

For example, Trinward writes that "So far, all we are doing [via term limits] is discouraging the current crop of game-players from keeping their hats in the ring, or even serving their final terms with concern for their constituents; we also need to encourage the new paradigm, of service for its own sake, if it is to thrive."

But if this is a journalistic claim about the effects of term limits, the negative conclusion is not justified. It is not justified as assessment of the impact of term limits either on the Congress (insofar as term limits have been enacted there by voluntary self-limitation), or on the 17 state legislatures now subject to term limits. Studies done by the Cato Institute and the National Taxpayers Union show that even so-called fiscal conservatives in the Congress tend to become more liberal spending other people's money the longer they're perched in power. But we also know that self-limited congressmen—genuine self-limiters, as opposed to those who spuriously term-limit themselves merely to gain an electoral edge—have proven more likely to resist institutional pressures and hew to their avowed fiscal conservatism (see John Bertoud's observations about self-limited members of Congress at [this link]. Mandatory term limits on state legislatures also seem to foster fiscal sanity, judging by the evidence that has come in from legislatures where term limits are now in effect (see Patrick Basham's study for the Cato Insitute, "Assessing the Term Limits Experiment California and Beyond,").

Political realities of course persist. Trinward mentions the case of Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist, who has been pushing for a state income tax now that he will presumably suffer no political cost for doing so. Sundquist cannot run for another term as governor. Is his power play made possible by his term limit? Yet Trinward fails to note that denizens of the state legislature also pushing for a state income tax are most definitely not subject to term limits. (In Tennessee, voters don't enjoy the right of initiative and referendum.) Perhaps a legislature more subject to democratic competition would be more reflective of the sentiments of the people, and less likely to go along with a push for a state income tax. In any case, the fact that a Sundquist or a Clinton might run riot during his scheduled final term is no argument for letting them remain in office indefinitely! (Not that Trinward himself would suggest any such thing.)

It's no coincidence that as the power and purview of the State metastasized during the second third of the last century, so did political tenure. Office-holders who truly possess the temperament of the citizen legislator don't mind stepping down when their time is up—whether their term limits are obligatory or voluntary. Self-limited (and anti-big-spending) congressmen like Mark Sanford, Matt Salmon, and Tom Coburn stepped down from office just as promised—despite the ease with which, as popular incumbents, they could have gained reelection. During their stints, folks like Coburn and Sanford could afford to be more independent because they didn't have to curry favor with party bosses. They knew they wouldn't be sticking around forever anyway. While they haven't changed the culture of Congress, such "citizen legislators" do show that that this political culture is not inevitable.

Most advocates of term limits would emphatically agree that term limits cannot be a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to effecting political change. It is not a political panacea, nor do we claim that it is. (My colleague Paul Jacob has devoted several of his daily "Common Sense" radio commentaries to exposing this straw man.) Indeed, no reformer of any stripe could be justified in claiming that his favored reform will somehow revise human nature so as to eliminate the possibility of moral choice or willful misconduct. What an appropriate reform can do, however, is take account of human nature. And that's what term limits do. Reflecting the Actonian insight that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," term limitation provides an institutional means of regularly nipping corruption in the bud.

Term limits do help pave the way for the more rights-respecting and fiscally-sober policies that libertarians favor. No, term limits can't do it alone. Term limits are not even the most important factor in producing political change—certainly not more important than a candidate's personal integrity, or a culture's ideas. But even if a car key is not the most important ingredient of what makes a car go, you still need to flip the ignition.

Stacie Rumenap is the executive director of U.S. Term Limits. To subscribe to the thrice-weekly email version of Common Sense, Paul Jacob's radio show on term limits and other political topics, send your request to subscribe@termlimits.org.


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