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Tom Steyer’s push for term limits is a truly awful idea

Term limits are great ... if you like corruption and incompetence.

Franklin Roosevelt
Why term limits are bad, in one FDR picture.
Keystone Features/Getty Images
Ian Millhiser is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he focuses on the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the decline of liberal democracy in the United States. He received a JD from Duke University and is the author of two books on the Supreme Court.

Billionaire and presidential candidate Tom Steyer thinks the problem with Congress is that its members have too much experience.

At Tuesday’s debate, Steyer pressed his proposal to impose term limits on lawmakers. “I am for term limits of 12 years for every congressperson and senator,” Steyer said, pointing out that term limits would “get rid of Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz.”

One problem with Steyer’s proposal is that it is unconstitutional. In US Term Limits, Inc v. Thornton (1995), the Supreme Court struck down an Arkansas state constitutional amendment that sought to term limit members of Congress. As the Court explained, the “fundamental principle of our representative democracy” is that “the people should choose whom they please to govern them.”

That means they can choose someone with many years of experience in office.

Constitutional limits aside, term limits are the sort of reform that may seem intuitive to many voters, but that is widely rejected by political scientists and others who’ve studied their impact closely. As Dartmouth government professor Brendan Nyhan said of Steyer, “few politicians have worked so hard or spent so much to, in effect, troll an entire scientific field.”

A 2006 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures examined states with term-limited lawmakers. It determined that term limits tend to increase the influence of lobbyists and lead to a “decline in civility” that “reduced legislators’ willingness and ability to compromise and engage in consensus building.”

Term-limited lawmakers, the NCSL explained, “have less time to get to know and trust one another” and “are less collegial and less likely to bond with their peers, particularly those from across the aisle.”

Such lawmakers often do not have enough time to learn how the legislature works or to master difficult policy issues. And they can’t turn to senior colleagues to give them this information because there are no senior colleagues. That “forces term-limited legislators to rely on lobbyists for information,” because lobbyists are able to spend years mastering legislative process and developing institutional memory about recurring policy debates.

Term limits may also reward dishonest behavior by lobbyists. In a legislature with long-serving lawmakers, the NCSL explains, lobbyists depend on “their reputation to effectively do their jobs.” A lobbyist caught “lying to or misleading a legislator” risks “a loss of credibility that quickly ends a lobbying career.” Thus, lobbyists have an incentive “to use reliable information and provide legislators with all sides of a policy debate” when they know that those lawmakers may stay around for a long time.

With term limits, however, a lobbyist caught in a lie only needs to wait a little while and this lie will be forgotten. As a result, the NCSL warns, “short-term lobbying goals have come [to] outweigh the importance of long-term credibility.”

And, on top of all that, term limits may foster laziness in lawmakers because, as Nyhan writes, “incumbents who lack a reelection incentive can reduce the effort they devote to their jobs.” He cites an empirical study showing that term-limited lawmakers sponsor fewer bills and are more likely to miss votes.

If voters believe that a specific lawmaker is past his or her expiration date, those voters can always choose to elect someone else. There is no reason why, in a nation with regular elections, lawmaking should be a lifelong career for corrupt or incompetent lawmakers.

But if Steyer wants to foster corruption and incompetence in Congress, term limits are a pretty good way to accomplish that goal.