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Story Publication logo February 23, 2024

Opinion: If You Think Term Limits Would Fix Dysfunction in Congress, Think Again

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The Democracy Solutions Project is a partnership between the Chicago Sun-Times, WBEZ and the University of Chicago, with some support from the Pulitzer Center. Molly Reynolds is a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

A Brookings Institution expert explains why seniority in Congress has clear benefits for individual members and their constituents.

By significant margins, Americans express high levels of support for term limits for members of Congress. A 2023 study from the University of Maryland found that 83% of registered voters — including 86% of Republicans and 80% of Democrats — support a constitutional amendment restricting how long legislators can serve.

Voters have plenty of reasons to be frustrated with Congress’ ability to address the persistent challenges facing the country, and with the institution for regularly struggling to complete its basic governing responsibilities. Frequent threats of government shutdowns and high levels of gridlock do not inspire public confidence. But, as a broad range of scholars agree, limiting members of the House and Senate to a certain number of terms would do little to address the real challenges facing Congress. Indeed, it would do more harm than good.

Seniority in Congress has clear benefits for individual members and their constituents. From the perspective of legislators themselves, members get better at both advancing bills and at getting language from proposals they offer included in other bills over the course of their careers. The longer a member serves as a committee or subcommittee chair, the more effective at that job he or she appears to become.

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Longer service also allows members to build meaningful relationships with their colleagues, which can pay dividends as they pursue their legislative goals.

At its heart, legislating is fundamentally a job, and inexperience can leave members uncertain about the best ways to approach the tasks for which they are responsible. When Congress resumed the practice of congressionally directed spending (defined as spending provisions in federal legislation, included at the request of a legislator, for specific projects in their state, city or congressional district) in 2021, for example, many members who were not in office when the institution paused the practice in 2011 were left playing catch-up as they figured out the best way to secure funding for projects that would meet key needs in their states and districts.

The institution itself also reaps benefits from having members build longer careers. On congressional committees, more senior members convene more oversight hearings and participate more in those sessions.

Term-limited state legislators work less

Evidence from the 16 states with term limits for their legislators also illustrates the shortcomings of this reform. Officeholders who are barred from seeking reelection often sponsor fewer bills, engage in less committee activity, and miss floor votes more frequently — and in cases where we don’t observe these behaviors, it is likely due to the fact that some term-limited legislators are motivated to run for higher office.

Several of the conceptual arguments in favor of term limits also find limited support in states’ actual experiences. Implementing term limits does not significantly change the demographic makeup of state legislatures and appears to lead representatives to de-prioritize the interests of their constituents in favor of other concerns.

At the institutional level, term limits also lead to higher levels of polarization by increasing the power of legislative parties. The legislature becomes institutionally weaker, both relative to a state’s governorto bureaucrats in state government agencies, and in comparison with lobbyists and interest groups. An inexperienced legislator, after all, must turn somewhere for the information needed to do his or her job.

Finally, state legislative term limits have potential spillover effects into the electoral process. Research finds mixed results on whether they reduce or increase voter turnout. They also appear to have increased partisanship in the redistricting process and there is little evidence that, over the long term, they have either reduced spending on campaigns or increased electoral competition.

For individual legislators with further political ambition but who are constrained by term limits, the restrictions on service seem to lead them to spend more time fund-raising as an investment in their future careers.

Rather than trying to reduce the amount of time members serve, then, reformers should focus on institutional change that incentivizes members to stick around, rather than retire. Indeed, several recent high-profile retirement announcements from members of the House Republican majority, who have institutional power and expected long futures in the chamber, illustrate the challenges of convincing legislators that long service in the institution is worth it.

Evidence suggests that some of the benefits of seniority discussed above have weakened as more power has been centralized in the hands of party leaders in Congress. Changes that would devolve more power to rank-and-file members could stand to reshape legislators’ incentives.

More generally, however, it is increasingly clear that, for some members, Congress is a place where people prioritize saying things over doing things. The more that Congress is used as a platform “to stand on and be seen,” the more future candidates who might truly want to engage in the hard work of legislating are potentially turned off from seeking office. Reformers’ energy would be better directed toward rewarding the kinds of legislative behavior that helps Congress solve the nation’s problems than toward trying to limit the length of congressional careers.

The Democracy Solutions Project is a collaboration among WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government, with funding support from the Pulitzer Center. Our goal is to help listeners and readers engage with the democratic functions in their lives and cast an informed ballot in the November 2024 election.


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