Institutional Chance in American Politics: The Case of Term LimitsInstitutional Change in American Politics: The Case of Term Limits

Edited by: Karl T. Kurtz, Bruce Cain and Richard G. Niemi

Published September 2007

Legislative term limits, mostly adopted by voter initiatives in the 1990s, are in effect today in fifteen states.  This reform is arguably the most significant institutional change in American government in the last 30 years.  Most of these 15 legislatures have now experienced a complete turnover in their membership.  More than a thousand experienced legislators have been prevented from running for reelection.  New legislators face the prospect of learning their jobs in as few as six years.  Under term limits, it is not uncommon for legislators to chair important committees in their first term in office or to serve as Speaker of the House of Representatives after two or three years of service.  Legislative organization, culture, and leadership inside the legislatures, as well as significant outside actors, such as  lobbyists and governors, have had to adjust to the quickened timetable of short, finite terms in office.

This book is the product of the Joint Project on Term Limits (JPTL), a unique three-year cooperative venture between a team of academic political scientists and staff members of the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of State Governments, and the State Legislative Leaders Foundation.>

The JPTL study examined the impact of term limits on legislatures' capacity for policy-making, the types of members elected, internal legislative operations, and relationships among the branches of government.  The goal of the project was not to revisit the debate over whether or not there should be term limits but, rather, to aid citizens in understanding term limit effects and to help legislatures to mitigate the negative influences of term limit reform while building on its positive impacts.

The book is organized around substantive topics related to legislative composition and organization.  Most of the discussion and debate at the time term limits were adopted in the 1990s was about the presumed effects of turnover on the kinds of individuals who would be elected.  But what has proved to be of the greatest long-run impact are effects on the organization and operation of the legislatures.  Most obviously, the role of seniority has declined sharply in term-limited states, affecting committee appointments and operations and the selection and activity of leaders.  The absence of long-term relationships among legislators themselves and between legislators and lobbyists and bureaucrats has disrupted previous patterns of behavior, with consequences not only for their relative power but also for the legislative culture itself.  The legislatures have not been passive in all of this, as they have helped inexperienced legislators get up to speed more quickly and have adapted their procedures to meet the altered rules of the game.

The authors of the book find significant variation from state to state on the impacts of term limits, depending on the length and nature of the limit and the degree of professionalization of the legislature before this reform was imposed.  In general, they conclude that term limits have weakened legislatures institutionally, especially in states with strict limits that had more professionalized legislatures and low turnover in the membership.  However, due to natural and planned adaptations, the consequences have not been as dire as they might have been.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction, Karl T. Kurtz, Richard G. Niemi, Bruce Cain
  • Term Limits in State Legislatures, Jennie Drage Browser and Gary Moncrief
  • Composition of Legislatures, Gary Moncrief, Lynda Powell and Tim Storey
  • Constituent Attention and Interest Representation, Lynda W. Powell, Richard G. Niemi and Michael Smith
  • Legislative Leadership, Thomas H. Little and Rick Farmer
  • Committees, Bruce E. Cain and Gerald Wright
  • Legislative Staff, Brian Weberg and Karl T. Kurtz
  • Legislative Climate, David R. Berman
  • Lobbyists and Interest Groups, Christopher Z. Mooney
  • Executive-Legislative Relations, Richard J. Powell
  • Budgets and the Policy Process, Thad Kousser and John Straayer
  • Education and Training of Legislators, Alan Rosenthal
  • Conclusion and Implications, Bruce Cain, Karl T. Kurtz, Richard G. Niemi