Joint Project on Term Limits

Executive Summary


National Conference of State Legislatures on behalf of the Council of State Governments, the State Legislative Leaders Foundation and a group of state legislative scholars

Principal Investigators

Jennifer Drage Bowser, Rich Jones, Karl T. Kurtz, Brian Weberg

Name of Project

Joint Project on Term Limits

Time Frame

42 months from July 2001 to December 2004



The Joint Project on Term Limits is a cooperative effort among the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of State Governments, the State Legislative Leaders Foundation and a small group of legislative scholars. The purpose of the project is to assess the effects of term limits on state legislatures and identify successful approaches for dealing with them.

This joint project among three national organizations of state legislators and a group of legislative scholars is a unique collaborative effort. Not only is it the first time the three national organizations have undertaken a joint project, it is also the first time that legislative scholars and the users of legislative research have joined together to identify a priority research topic and collaborate on carrying it out. The scholars and the national organizations hope that this project is a model for future mutually beneficial research.

Term limits are the most significant change to the legislative institution since the legislative modernization movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Currently, 19 states have term limits. They have taken effect in 11 states and will go into effect in the remaining eight states between 2002 and 2008. Because term limits are only now taking effect, we do not yet fully understand their influences on state legislatures and our system of representative democracy. The time is ripe to undertake a national study of the institutional impacts of term limits.

Because legislatures play such an important role in our democracy, it is critical that citizens and policy makers understand the effects of term limits and make adjustments to ensure that legislatures remain effective institutions of representative democracy. The project will examine how the legislature's capacity for policy making, types of members elected, internal legislative operations and relationships among the branches of government have changed as a result of term limits. Our goal is not to revisit the debate over whether or not there should be term limits but rather to aid citizens in understanding their effects and help legislatures in mitigating the negative influences of this reform while building on its positive impacts.

The Joint Project on Term Limits study design has five elements:


    1. Planning. The project management team met in summer 2001 to review NCSL plans for developing the demographic database on all state legislators, design the national survey and select the case study states and the project investigators in each of these states.
    2. Demographic Data. NCSL currently maintains a database of all state legislators containing information on addresses, district numbers, gender, political party and committee and leadership assignments. This database will be expanded to include the following other demographic data: age, occupation, education, race, previous political office and year term-limited. Expansion of the database will enable comprehensive comparisons of the membership of term-limited and non-term-limited legislatures.
    3. Survey Research. The project team will conduct a national survey of all state legislators. Building on a survey instrument first developed and administered in 1995 by Carey, Niemi and Powell before term limits had taken full effect, we will compare attitudes of legislators in term-limited and non-term-limited states. The survey will ask questions about such things as the relative influence of various political actors, legislators' role orientations, time spent on legislative activities and career orientation. We will assess changes due to term limits by comparing data from legislators in term limited and non-term limited states. A second smaller survey will be conducted in selected term limited states asking staff and other participants and observers to compare legislative behavior before and after term limits.
    4. Case Studies. Teams of academics and staff from the three national legislative organizations will conduct in-depth case studies of six term-limited legislatures and a control group of three non-term-limited legislatures. A legislative scholar will be paired with a staff person from one of the three national organizations to conduct the case study in each of the nine states. Field visits will occur at least once a year for three years. Methods that will be used will include personal interviews with legislators, legislative staff and legislative observers and collection of data on legislative operations.
    5. National Advisory Committee and Dissemination A national committee composed of state legislators, legislative staff, political scientists and other legislative observers will oversee the project and receive the information gathered during the course of the study. Political scientists on the project team will publish scholarly articles on various aspects of the research and will prepare a book for the academic market. Staff of the three organizations will write and publish articles, electronic reports and issue briefs for a national audience of legislators and legislative staff. All three national organizations will conduct training and professional development programs for legislators based on the results of the study. At the conclusion of the study the national organizations will jointly publish a practical guide to term limits that describes the principal effects of these reforms and recommends adaptation strategies to mitigate any negative impacts.

Finding effective ways to adapt to the effects of term limits is critical to the institutional health of the 19 state legislatures where they have been imposed. To remain independent, co-equal branches of state government, they must find ways to overcome the problems of loss of institutional memory, inexperience and lack of continuity. This study will identify effective adaptation strategies and recommend their implementation in the term-limited states. Non-term-limited states will also benefit from this research, because the training, professional development and procedural changes that term-limited states are developing are likely to be valuable strategies for legislative strengthening in the non-term-limited states as well.

Return to Joint Project on Term Limits

Wendy Underhill tracks term limits and may be reached at 303-364-7700 or