Every so often you will hear of incoming members of Congress and congressional candidates call for the institution of congressional term limits. It’s an easy talking point for many to get behind, yet term limits have still be applied to the federal legislature. However much support the idea seems to get, Congress has never been term-limited. There have also been calls every so often for term limits to be placed on Supreme Court justices as well, but so far they have always been lifetime appointments.
The presidency originally wasn’t term-limited either, which is how Franklin D. Roosevelt won four terms (although he died very shortly after starting his fourth term, which led to Harry Truman taking the reins). FDR is the only president to have gone for more than two terms. Prior to his tenure, presidents only served two terms at most either in observance of the two-term precedent (no pun intended) set by George Washington or they simply couldn’t win a third term. It wasn’t until the ratification of the 22nd Amendment in 1951 that the two-term limit became law. (A little-known fact, however, is that 10 years is actually the maximum length a president can serve. The only way this could be done is for a president to take over for their predecessor at the halfway point of the predecessor’s term and subsequently win two general elections.)
Many of the states, however, have enacted term limits on their legislatures and statewide officeholders (e.g. governor, attorney general). The history and debate over term limits — and the obviously related concept of turnover — are the focus of today’s article.
Historical Trend in Turnover and The Call for Term Limits
The institutional of term limits in state governments is a relatively new one, only coming to the fore in the 1990s. The historical trend of turnover is what eventually prompted the term limit movement.
Going backward into time, turnover used to be significantly higher than it is today. In the early 1900s, turnover was astronomically high and lamented by some people. One such person, Robert Luce called the constant revolving door and subsequent lack of tenure of his time an “evil” that contributed to “the weakness of our legislative bodies.”¹
Just how high was turnover then? In the 1930s, it was around a whopping 50 percent. It was after the 1930s, however, that turnover started to gradually decline. Turnover rates dropped to about 35% in the early 1970s and below 25% in the late 1970s and early 1980s.²
The concern about high turnover rates then gave way to concern about low turnover rates. As it decreased further, some people started to push back on legislators being more entrenched in state governments, leading to the implementation of legislative term limits beginning in the early 1990s.
The Debate Over The Benefits and Drawbacks of Turnover
There isn’t a consensus as to whether lower or higher turnover is inherently better, but there are some pros and cons to both. Arguments against higher turnover include the lack of experience that is constantly churned out, a lack of political clout when state legislators run for higher office, and a more inefficient and short-sighted government. Arguments against lower turnover include the entrenchment of career politicians and a lack of responsiveness to the public due to their seats being safe.
While those reformers who sought term limits clearly agreed that low turnover was an issue, there was apparently no consensus as to just how long those term limits should be.
Which brings us to the next section.
The Term-Limited States and Their Differences: State Legislatures
There are two major types of term limits: cumulative and consecutive. Consecutive limits let legislators serve for a set amount of time, after which those legislators must sit out for at least a year. Cumulative limits, on the other hand, only let legislators serve a specific total number of years in the legislature, after which they can never hold another legislative seat again.
There are 15 states that have term limits.
Besides a couple of modifications, 2000 was the last time term limits were passed, which was for Nebraska. (Nebraska is a unicameral legislature without a House, the only state with a unicameral legislature. Thus, term limits are only for the Senate.)
Some other states, however, had term limits that eventually overturned. The legislatures in Idaho (2002) and Utah (2003) repealed their term limits, while term limits were overturned by state supreme courts in Massachusetts (1997), Washington (1998), Oregon (2002), and Wyoming (2004)³ ⁴
The Term-Limited States and Their Differences: Statewide Officeholders
There are far too many term limits to list for statewide offices, such as governors, lieutenant governors, attorneys general, and secretaries of state to list here, but the types of term limits are similar to state legislatures. Some are cumulative while others and consecutive, with each having varying limits. Also note that in some cases statewide officeholders are appointed, not elected.
However, Ballotpedia has links for which you can read up on the term limits for those types of offices. They are listed below.
Term Lengths of State Supreme Court Justices
State Supreme Court justices do not have term limits per se. There are, however, a few states that have a mandatory retirement age (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New Jersey). There is a wide variety of term lengths across states and number of justices that serve on each court.
There are five major methods of selection through which these justices are selected. They are listed below with the states (and number of states) they apply to.⁵
- Partisan elections (8): Alabama, Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas (two courts serve as courts of last resort, depending on whether the case is criminal or civil), and West Virginia
- Nonpartisan elections (14): Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin
- Governor appoints (4): California, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey
- Governor appoints through a nominating commission (22): Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Oklahoma (similarly to Texas, one court of last resort for civil cases and one for criminal cases), Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont and Wyoming
- Legislative selection of justices (2): South Carolina and Virginia
Have Term Limits Increased Turnover?
It seems that term limit advocates did accomplish their goal of increased turnover. Yet some questions remain. For one thing, the increase in turnover has varied across states, and it isn’t clear which specific type and length of term limit is the “best” for increasing turnover.¹
There are also instances where turnover was indirectly influenced by term limits instead of directly. Obviously, term limits force turnover at the point the limit is reached. Yet they also have increased the anticipatory maneuvers of legislators to seek higher offices before they hit their term limits.¹
More Term Limits in the Future?
It has almost two decades since a state enacted term limits on its legislature, and only 15 states overall have term limits. Might we finally see another state impose limits on its legislature or other offices? It’s hard to say. There are certainly going to be pushes for it to happen but it is up in the air whether any will be successful, partly due to the fact that it has been a while since any were passed (at least on state legislatures).
At the federal level, however, it is unlikely. Many candidates and activists alike have supported term limits (although sometimes candidates will say they do for political reasons when they do not actually support them), but none have gotten very close. There is also the issue that term limits would have to be enacted through an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As a testament to how difficult it is to pass one, only 27 Amendments have been ratified since the Constitution was ratified in 1789. The Bill of Rights — the first 10 Amendments — was ratified in 1791, meaning that only 17 Amendments have passed in the last 227 years. The 27th Amendment was ratified in 1992.
For comparison, some term limits for state legislatures came from citizen initiatives. There is no such a process at the congressional level. Given the vested interests of members of Congress to not enact term limits, it is highly unlikely to happen. But time will tell.
- Moncrief, Gary F., Richard G. Niemi, and Lynda W. Powell. 2004. “Time, Term Limits, and Turnover: Trends in Membership Stability in U.S. State Legislatures.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 29 (3): 357–381.
- Uppal, Yogesh and Amihai Glazer. 2015. “Legislative Turnover, Fiscal Policy, and Economic Growth: Evidence from U.S. State Legislatures.” Economic Inquiry 53 (1): 91–107.
- Ballotpedia. “State legislatures with term limits.” https://ballotpedia.org/State_legislatures_with_term_limits (accessed December 13, 2018).
- NCSL. “The Term-Limited States.” http://www.ncsl.org/research/about-state-legislatures/chart-of-term-limits-states.aspx (accessed December 13, 2018).
- Ballotpedia. “State supreme courts.” https://ballotpedia.org/State_supreme_courts (accessed December 13, 2018).