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Why Term Limits Are Actually A Horrible Idea

The intent of term limits was to prevent career politicians. The reality has been an erosion of legislative power.


Limiting terms for elected officials remains a popular item as a dysfunctional Congress — often mirrored at the state legislative level — tests voters’ patience. The U.S. Term Limits website even lists about 125 federal lawmakers as co-sponsors of legislation aimed at passing a constitutional amendment to limit terms in Congress.

The argument is simple: Lawmakers overstay their time, becoming distant from those they serve and sometimes corrupt in the bargain.

Yet the ultimate term limit is an election. In the March Texas primary, of the 86 Republicans in Texas’ 150-member House of Representatives, 10 didn’t run for reelection. Some of these representatives knew that Gov. Greg Abbott’s drive to fill the House with public education reform allies would make reelection difficult. For many who did run, it did. Of the 76 who stood for renomination, nine lost their primaries outright and eight were forced into runoffs, including the powerful speaker of the house. Thus, the 2024 turnover ranges from a low of 19 to a high of 27 of 86, assuming no surprises in November.

California’s Failed Example

In 1990, California voters passed a proposition with a narrow 52 percent majority that imposed term limits on state legislators, eliminated pensions for lawmakers, and transferred the responsibility for setting their pay to a governor-appointed commission.

The idea of limiting terms has roots in the early days of the American republic, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that the movement saw substantial legislative success. When California became one of the first states to pass term limits for state legislators through Proposition 140, it set a precedent, and by 1996, 20 states had adopted similar measures for their legislatures. Since then, two more states have adopted term limits while in six states, they were repealed, two by the legislature and four by the courts.

I was ambivalent about term limits back in 1990, as were many Californians. One of the main arguments for term limits then was that they would act to remove the highly effective and highly partisan speaker of the assembly, Willie Brown. Brown reigned as speaker from 1980 to 1995 — 15 years with the gavel. There have been 13 speakers in the 29 years since then.

However, in the 34 years since California voters passed term limits, I’ve seen how they’ve weakened lawmakers’ power while shifting that power to unelected bureaucrats in the executive branch and lobbyists representing labor unions, large corporations, and other special interest groups.

California voters later modified the term limit law, passing Proposition 28 in 2012, limiting total legislative service to 12 years. Prior to its passage, time in the assembly was limited to six years while service in the Senate was limited to eight years.

During my tenure as a California state assemblyman from 2004 to 2010, I witnessed firsthand the detrimental shift in power dynamics caused by term limits. One glaring example was my investigation into the California Department of Parks and Recreation. I uncovered systematic abuse where some senior state employees arranged to live in state-owned housing while paying significantly below-market rents. Some paid as little as $180 a month for houses that could fetch more than $3,000 a month on the open market.

I presented my findings to the director of the Department of Parks and Recreation. Her response was telling; she reminded me that I had an expiration date as a legislator, implying that my efforts to ensure accountability would be short-lived. As it turned out, she was right. This encounter highlighted a critical flaw in term limits: Lawmakers are seen as temporary obstacles by entrenched bureaucrats, diminishing lawmakers’ ability to conduct long-term oversight and demand accountability.

Despite the constraints of both term limits and being in the minority, I managed to pass AB 1708 in 2006, a bill requiring the state to account for the value of housing provided to employees as a benefit and to charge market-rate rents. However, the lack of sustained legislative oversight led to the law being ignored. Years later, the Los Angeles Times reported that the abuse of housing benefits continued unabated, confirming that the absence of experienced legislators weakened the enforcement of laws.

The power vacuum created by term limits is often filled by lobbyists. With legislators cycling out of office every few years, lobbyists become the institutional memory and de facto policymakers. They possess the continuity and expertise that term-limited legislators lack, leading to disproportionate influence over the legislative process. This runs counter to the intent of our representative form of government, where the people invest their power in elected representatives.

Advantage of Experience

Comparing lawmaker turnover highlights the issue further. The Texas Legislature, while having no term limits, still experiences significant turnover but also benefits from having long-serving legislators who provide continuity and expertise. In contrast, California’s term limits lead to higher turnover, with lawmakers often being pushed out of office due to term limits, thus lacking the continuity seen in states like Texas.

Texas legislators can build experience over time despite turnover, which contrasts with California’s enforced inexperience due to term limits.

This is seen in the average tenure for members of the Texas House, approximately 7.5 years, while members of the Texas Senate average about 11 years. In contrast, in California, the average tenure in the Assembly is about 5.6 years, and in the state Senate, it’s roughly 6.5 years​​.

Experienced lawmakers are crucial for effective governance. They understand the intricacies of policy, maintain valuable relationships, and have the historical context necessary to hold bureaucrats accountable. Term limits disrupt this, leading to a cycle of inexperienced legislators who are less equipped to oversee complex governmental functions and more reliant on external actors — actors not beholden to the voters.

The intent of term limits was to foster fresh perspectives and prevent career politicians. However, the reality has been an erosion of legislative power and accountability, with bureaucrats and lobbyists filling the void. Further, in term-limited California, some half of term-limited lawmakers continue to make a career of politics, running for U.S. Congress or local office. Not only did Willie Brown get elected mayor, but Karen Bass, who served as speaker during some of the time I served in the legislature, later became a U.S. representative and is now mayor of Los Angeles.

My experience as a California state assemblyman demonstrated the critical need for experienced lawmakers who can provide sustained oversight and ensure laws are enforced. It’s time to reconsider term limits and their unintended consequences on governance and accountability.

Term limits are best enforced by the voters.

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