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Term Limits for Leaders: States Experiment With Different Approaches

By Taylor Huhn  |  July 28, 2021

In January, the Illinois House of Representatives elected a new speaker after Michael Madigan (D) stepped down from the position. Madigan’s tenure as speaker—he served 38 years in the top spot, including the last 24 consecutively—makes him the longest-serving leader of a state legislative chamber in modern U.S. history. His unprecedented streak opened a conversation on whether leadership positions should be subject to term limits.

The Illinois General Assembly made its position clear soon after the end of Madigan’s tenure. In one of his first moves as the new speaker, Emanuel “Chris” Welch (D) led a successful push to amend the House rules to create term limits for the positions of speaker and minority leader. The Illinois Senate made a corresponding rule change to place term limits on the president and minority leader. As a result, legislators may only hold these leadership positions for a maximum of five two-year terms.

Does this shift align with other states, is it a nationwide trend, or is Illinois an outlier? The answer is complicated. The two chambers in Illinois certainly fall into a small minority of legislatures across the U.S. with formal term limits on leaders. Only 10 of 99 chambers, including the two in Illinois, have formalized term limits on leaders. Of these, the Maine Senate and House are unique in having codified leader term limits in statute; all the others have done so by chamber rule.

Beyond the chambers with formal limits, 11 others have placed term limits on leaders through customs, traditions or internal caucus rules. However, these limits may turn out to be malleable, as demonstrated in Kansas this year, where House Speaker Ron Ryckman (R) was elected to a third term as leader—a first for the Kansas House.

Senate Rules

The position of lieutenant governor/president of the senate also comes into play when considering term limits on leaders. In 25 states, the senate president is a lieutenant governor who is an executive branch official, not a member of the legislature. In 14 of the 25, the number of terms that a lieutenant governor may serve is limited, so the length of time these individuals serve as senate president also is restricted. However, it should be noted that lieutenant governors who serve as senate presidents may not necessarily be the “top leaders” of their chambers. In the Arkansas Senate, for example, while the lieutenant governor holds the title of president, the president pro tempore serves as the de facto leader of the chamber.

Term limits on legislators themselves also play a role in limiting the tenure of leadership positions. Fifteen states currently have term limits for legislators, and while the precise rules of these limits vary, they might effectively serve the same function as limits on leaders.

Notably, in all cases of term limits (or lack thereof) for leaders, nothing is set in stone. Traditions can be flexible, and chamber rules can change. In the Massachusetts House, for example, term limits on the speaker have come and gone twice since 1985.

As Illinois and other states experiment with leader term limits, lawmakers will have to continue grappling with questions like those surrounding legislator term limits: Do the limits lead to increased accountability and fresh ideas, or do they curtail experience and devalue institutional knowledge? Lawmakers in Illinois may already be signaling their answers to these questions, as the House passed a bipartisan bill to strengthen the new term limits on leaders by codifying them in statute.

Ultimately, the actions by legislatures in Illinois and around the country may determine whether Michael Madigan retains his place as the longest-serving state legislative leader in modern history.

Taylor Huhn is a senior program specialist in NCSL’s Leaders and International Program.

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