Study Shows What We Already Knew: Term Limits Do Not Work

sacramento-state-capitolAt the outset here, I will admit I am philosophically opposed to term limits.  I believe the public has the right to vote for whomever they choose to vote for.  I oppose term limits on Presidents as well, as all it has done is turn the second term into a dead zone.

But that point aside, term limits from a practical perspective were doomed to fail, as well.  Like many reforms, they came in California from a confluence of two sources – ideology and good government people.

As you might have sensed by now, I view good government types as “do-gooders” who deserve a special place in some proverbial hell.  They may be well-intentioned but they are also, most of the time, flawed in their actions.  Campaign finance reform, term limits and redistricting reform are just some of the pains they have inflicted on society.

The idea was that we ought to have citizens running elected government, who return to private life when their term expires.  The problems in government are caused by ambitious career politicians.

Those good government “do-gooders” were joined by Republicans, who were tired of being locked out of power in Sacramento and believed that would be rectified if they just got rid of the incumbency advantage.  And who knows, it might have worked, if only they hadn’t at the same time pushed Proposition 187 and activated a large constituency of Hispanic voters against them.

So, the Republicans’ movement failed, although they did manage to get rid of Willie Brown who, as Speaker, was a constant thorn in their side.  But they remain a small minority in state government.

The problem is that term limits do not produce good government, they produce worse government because, instead of gaining expertise into how to run government, elected officials are moving in and out of different places of power in government.  It is a huge game of musical chairs that brings out the worst of the Peter Principal.

So now we have a study from the Center of Government Studies that shows what we have known for a long time – term limits achieve no goal that was intended in their passage.

“The record disputes the idea that legislators will return to their pharmacy, return to their farm, return to their law firm,” Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies wrote.  “Once they get into government, they find they are good at it, and they like it.”

They even use the same metaphor I did – musical chairs.

“California’s term limits have not created an environment in which citizen legislators temporarily serve in the state Capitol and then return to the private sector,” the reports says. Rather, “Professional legislators…continue to seek careers in other government positions – a form of political musical chairs for governmental office.”

“Indeed,” the report continues, “politicians are now moving faster and faster to the music.”

Again the report adds, “Most termed-out legislators do not beat their political spears into plowshares and return to the civilian sector….Term limits…have converted the state Legislature into a ‘farm team’ of potential candidates for other public offices.”

So, what do we know about the legislators now, as compared with back in 1990?  Well, according to the report, most newcomers in the legislature are simply politicians who have served in local government and have moved up.

Let us look at the career of Lois Wolk.  She is a great example of this.  I mean this as no disparagement to her, she’s been an exemplary legislator and represented her constituents well.

She went from the City Council to the Board of Supervisors.  When Helen Thomson was termed out of the Assembly, Ms. Wolk ran and became an Assemblymember.  When Senator Machado was termed out of the Senate, Ms. Wolk ran and became a Senator.  In other words, she filled two power vacuums.

In 1990, 28% of those elected to the Assembly first came from local government, and that number rose to 68%  in 2010.  The Senate saw that percentage rise from 35% to 70% over the same period of time.

And what happens to termed-out members is that they “are just as likely to seek other public-sector jobs as were pre-term limits predecessors.”

In the 1980s, 60% of Assembly members and 30% of senators, upon leaving the Legislature, either ran for another office or landed some government appointment.  That number stays the same with 60% of termed-out assemblymembers, and 40% of termed-out senators going for higher office or other government employment.

According to columnist George Skelton, Caliofrnia’s terms limits are the most restrictive in the nation with three two-year terms in Assembly and two four-year terms in the Senate.  He writes, “Anyone who has watched the legislative process in Sacramento has witnessed the obvious: Newly elected lawmakers start plotting to capture their next office even before they’re sworn in to the one they’ve just won.”

He quotes labor leader Maria Durazo, “”They’re running all the time, for one office or another.”

“We raise money over and over again, one after another after another,” she says.  “I really believe most are good, decent people, but they’re caught up in a system that forces them to move quickly.  Both labor and business get tired of, over and over, trying to teach them about our issues, and in the end the only thing that determines how they’re going to vote is a calculation of what’s going to happen in the next election.”

The point is that not only are they running all of the time, but they are less experienced at what should be their job – legislating, they are less knowledgeable about public policy, and they are “weaker in dealing with the governor and more dependent on their staffs and lobbyists.”

Is this a recipe for good things in the state?  No.

So, the system that was supposed to take politics out of the equation, has produced a bunch of inexperienced legislators who are forced to campaign all of the time.

It is not just liberals complaining.

“The musical chairs taking place is not beneficial to anyone,” says Gary L. Toebben, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. “We need some experience and stability in Sacramento.”

The business community suffers, Toebben says, because of “a lack of action, a lack of compromise.” Legislators won’t compromise, he continues, “because they’re going to be running for another office relatively soon, and they don’t want to make their major supporters unhappy. They won’t make the tough decisions necessary in a democracy.”

Writes Mr. Skelton, “Most recent example: The failure of Democrats and Republicans to compromise on a plan to place a tax measure on the ballot in exchange for spending, pension and regulatory reforms. ‘A lost opportunity,’ Toebben laments.”

What will be interesting is whether the voters finally understand this.  To date, they have opposed every effort to even amend term limits.  But if a measure has a chance it will be the one coming forward on the June 2012 ballot.Tthat is because the sponsor is the LA Chamber of Commerce and the LA Labor Federation – an unlikely coalition that just might be able to muster the support.

Unfortunately, it pushes forward the same flawed premise of a few years ago, where the number of years would be reduced from 14 to 12 but it allows for that time to be served in one house.  One reason that measure failed a few years ago was it was a transparent attempt for those in power to stay in power.

Nevertheless, it has some unlikely supporters like Jim Brulte, who is a strong supporter of term limits, but thinks that the California system is broken.

“Special interests have significantly more influence today than before term limits,” he said as quoted by Mr. Skelton. Legislators “don’t have the ability or willingness to stand up and tell their core constituencies ‘No.’ “

Unfortunately, this hardly changes the law and it is certainly not about to fix the problem.

Good government proposals never work, because they fail to take notice of the incentive structures.  The only thing that works is transparency and open government.  Until we accept that, we are doomed to having failed experiments.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. medwoman


    I believe that your strongest point was made in your second sentence ” I believe that the public has the right to vote for whomever they choose to vote for. ” For me the critical point is that the only real limit that is set by term limits is on the voters ability to choose freely. As you pointed out, politicians tend to continue in politics but are denied the ability to ever really focus on or master the position that they are in. An only partially facetious analogy would be if we managed medicine the same way. Sure, you can be a gynecologist, but only for four years at which time you can stay in medicine, but only if you switch to orthopedics !

  2. biddlin

    medwoman-Is it the case that an orthopaedist may take a few hour seminar in ob/gyn(or most other specialties) and then practice as a gynecologist ?

  3. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]So, the Republicans’ movement failed, although they did manage to get rid of Willie Brown who, as Speaker, was a constant thorn in their side. But they remain a small minority in state government.

    The problem is that term limits do not produce good government, they produce worse government because, instead of gaining expertise into how to run government, elected officials are moving in and out of different places of power in government. It is a huge game of musical chairs that brings out the worst of the Peter Principal.

    So now we have a study from the Center of Government Studies that shows what we have known for a long time – term limits achieve no goal that was intended in their passage.[/quote]

    I wouldn’t say the Republicans did not get anything done if they got rid of Willy Brown!

    But I have never, ever been a proponent of term limits. It takes time to learn the ropes, forge proper relationships, and really get to know your way around the legislative circuit. Just when you are barely learning the ropes, you have to leave, and the process starts all over again. It just doesn’t make any sense…

  4. medwoman


    I’m sure that I have met a few who thought they could ! But seriously, no. While a specialist in almost any field of surgery could probably adequately assist an experienced specialist, surgery is sub specialized precisely because it takes years to master the fine points and especially the anatomical variations as well as the management of complications unique to each organ system. Ob/gyn residency is currently four years,
    orthopedics is at least as long and some specialties such as neurosurgery are considerably longer.

    To get back on track, I completely agree with Elaine that it makes no sense to expect politicians to perform competently and professionally when we do boat allow them enough time to learn the necessary skills and develop their talents.

  5. Don Shor

    I remember conservatives at the time called the term limits initiative the Willie Brown Retirement Act. I do not like term limits; it irritates me that when we have a highly competent local official such as Lois, she has to keep moving on because of artificial constraints on her tenure. But through the 1970’s and into the 1980’s we had a series of bitter leadership battles in our legislature (remember that Willie Brown became speaker by the votes of [i]Republicans[/i]?). There were some pretty high-profile power-mongers such as Lou Papan and the Burtons who seemingly would never go away.
    Term limits also opened up opportunities for women to break into the good-old-boys network that had dominated state politics. So the effects were not entirely negative. The problem is that now, just as someone is getting a strong background in any particular area (water issues, the Delta, etc.) they have to move on. New legislators end up having to rely on staff more.
    Your dismissal government reform efforts, David, just indicates that you have a particularly partisan viewpoint. Redistricting reform is a direct response to the abuses of the system that prevailed when the Burton machine dominated the process. This process has been far more transparent and responsive to community interests than anything they ever did. Just look at how the Yolo County districts were revised in response to public input.

  6. JustSaying

    I suspect these “experiments” and “improvements” are doomed to eventual failure because almost all are anti-democracratic and are designed to attack our one-person-one-vote principles.

    Want to make your “small government” views easier to implement than my “social government” ideas, gin up a Prop. 13 to “allow Grandma to keep her house.” If that doesn’t work, keep looking for other targets ripe for imposition of super-majority requirements that tip any future election the desired direction before a single vote is cast. (This whole concept of devaluing other people’s votes eventually gets us to the Prop. 218 Nuclear Option, a situation where nobody’s votes count except the dozen or so who want the water delivered.)

    Tired of Damn Willie and his cohorts winning every battle–you know how experienced, smart, name-recognized and devious he is–initiate a ‘term limits” plan to take away the sleazy “professional politicians” rights to appear on the ballot. If that doesn’t have the desired effect, set up a method to re-gerrymander the gerrymandered districts so Republican votes are more “productive” than they were in the old setup.

    It’s gotten so there’s little need to invite a jail term by stealing an election. Just improve the odds ahead of time by deciding which votes are worth one point and which one are worth more.

    Such “improvements” aim at the heart of our democracy (making sure that each of us [u]does not[/u] have an equal say in important issues) and have become an overwhelming influence in our politics. The incentive structures, as David calls them, might change a little as the various “improvements” get made.
    But the incentives always seem to stay ahead of the improvements.

    It’s an irony that each of these basic rights giveaways requires only a majority vote–plus an overwhelming amount of [s]money[/s] free speech to grease the skids. That many of them end up as amendments and revisions to our constitution (they must, then, be constitutional, right?) is a tragic commentary to my mind.

  7. rusty49

    I like new blood coming in. Look at what the new blood in the House of Representatives has achieved, our country is finally taking a hard look at our runaway budget and possibly doing something about it. Do you think the old guard would be talking about that now without the new infusion of Republican Reps?

  8. jimt

    I’ve always a bit mystified as to why so many people thought term limits would be a good thing.
    Especially nowadays, you don’t make it into the political big leagues unless you are a ‘player’–if you play ball with big finance and big business; you will magically find support for your next campaign endeavor; not having a track record as a player, you have no hope. So candidates are pre-selected from a pool of ‘players’.

    We make little effective attempt at keeping big money out of political campaigns or reigning in lobbyists. I would wager that any politician who made any serious attempt to do this would find himself rapidly marginalized and castigated; and soon out of work with no lucrative ‘consulting’ or board position after his term ends. Until this happens, the candidates will continue to make noises about representing the people, and engage in farcical battles like the current one with the federal debt; but you’ll notice the end result is to funnel more money towards Wall Street and some big business interests.

  9. David M. Greenwald

    “Your dismissal government reform efforts, David, just indicates that you have a particularly partisan viewpoint.”

    I don’t think this is a fair statement. It doesn’t really have anything to do with partisanship, I just don’t find that these reform efforts work particularly well.

  10. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]This process has been far more transparent and responsive to community interests than anything they ever did. Just look at how the Yolo County districts were revised in response to public input.[/quote]

    Yes, I was pleasantly surprised that the Redistricting Commission took into account the complaints of Yolo County. Hopefully, the Commission did the same for other similar situations…

  11. J.R.

    Whether term limits have worked or not depends on what you expected of them. But it is easy enough to see why they are so popular if you think about it.

    Politicians have corrupted the system through gerrymandering and limits on political contributions and related political speech, in order to make it almost impossible to challenge and defeat an incumbent. As a result, in a completely natural reaction, voters turned to term limits.

  12. Frankly

    [i]”The problem is that term limits do not produce good government, they produce worse government because, instead of gaining expertise into how to run government, elected officials are moving in and out of different places of power in government. It is a huge game of musical chairs that brings out the worst of the Peter Principal.”[/i]

    I’m sorry, but many smart people here are being stupid about this.

    David is correct, that term limits do not help. Rusty49 is also correct in that we need new blood So, we need to do away with consecutive terms.

    The main reason our government is such a mess is that we allow multiple terms. When the heck did “politician” become a career aspiration? That is not the design of representative democracy… politicians are supposed to be regular folk that serve their country and go back to their regular-folk life.

    If we eliminated consecutive terms, politicians would be able to hit the ground running and get more done because they wouldn’t need half of their term to solicit campaign donations and scrounge for re-election votes. With the entire batch unable to re-anoint themselves as political royalty, they would be working together to solve problems instead of working against others to improve the electability of their party and themselves.

    Progressive companies have implement leadership and job rotation programs to combat the problems that occur when people do the same thing for too many years. Studies have shown that, on average, after about eight years, they become uncreative, change-blocking bureaucrats… every year growing more motivated to protect their past career legacy and less motivated to propose and accept necessary change. It is the professional eight-year itch.

    When we are making the argument that we need “expertise to run government”, it is a clear message that we need to overhaul government. Frankly, the reason that politicians need so much damn experience is that they have to learn to maneuver the dysfunctional culture of their jurisdiction. The reason it is dysfunctional is the layers and layers of useless rules, procedures and myths enacted by predecessors that exceeded their shelf life and capacity to effectively solve the problems of government.

    Even Cuba gets the problem:
    [quote] Raul Castro proposed term limits for Cuban politicians _ including himself _ a remarkable gesture on an island ruled for 52 years by him and his brother. The 79-year-old president lamented the lack of young leaders in government, saying the country was paying the price for errors made in the past.

    Castro told delegates to a crucial Communist Party summit that he would launch a “systematic rejuvenation” of the government. He said politicians and other important officials should be restricted to two consecutive five-year terms, including “the current president of the Council of State and his ministers” _ a reference to himself.”[/quote]

  13. medwoman


    Where does your belief in the wisdom of the everyday
    American play into this? You seem to feel that common sense and acting in one’s own interest will yield the best outcome. So why should we have rules ( government regulation by any other name) about how many times we can vote the same person into the same office. Surely we will be ably to tell if they are acting in our best interest or not and can vote them in or out as we choose. I can’t see how it jibes with your stated philosophy for the government to tell us who we can and cannot vote for.

  14. Frankly

    Medwoman: Those two points are mutually exclusive. The government is not “telling me who I can vote for” if we-the-people vote to amend our federal and state constitutions to disallow consecutive terms for politicians. The politician can run for a different office. But there should be no campaigning while he/she is in office.

    Think about it this way… politicians work for you and me the tax payer. If I hire someone to work for me, and they spend their time soliciting for their next job, then they are in effect stealing from me. They are using time I am paying them to do a job for their own benefit and not for the benefit of the company.

    The other piece to my idea to eliminate consecutive terms has to do with the theory of human motivation for accomplishment.

    I am all about recognizing human motivations and the rational pursuit of self interest. I also know human behavior is rarely purely altruistic. Humans generally serve themselves before they serve others. If you or I were to run for office, we would do so with externally motivation of a sense of duty and pride and a feeling that we could make a positive difference. However, internally the decision to run would be about filling our personal needs or desires to be recognized and admired… even if we mask it in a cloak of humility and humbleness. This doesn’t mean I don’t value the service of others, it just means I recognize it always generates from a personal drive to fulfill a selfish need. Selflessness appears from time to time… but generally only after or in concert with the fulfillment of selfish needs. But, note that our needs for fulfillment never stop… the bar is always raised. It is why millionaires then strive to become billionaires and why research professors seek to be published as much as possible.

    So, considering all of this, what happens when people run for politics after having been fulfilled enough to truly give of themselves for the benefit of: their community, their state or their country? Once in office, at some point, a new need will develop for them to keep being admired and recognized. When they get to this point they become less effective as problem solvers because they start to seek solutions that prioritize in their needs over the needs of the constituents they serve.

    Effective leaders should accept damage to their political reputation if it is an inevitable result of doing the right things to serve their jurisdiction. Effective leadership rarely correlates with popularity. Just look back historically… those presidents that we most admire are generally the ones most despised during their time in office.

    We do not have many effective leaders in government today by this measure. Good political leaders know that history usually gets it right… that is unless more of the crap politicians make us re-write all the history books to comply with their version of political correctness.

    My issues are three:
    One – The media corrupts the concept of political service by attracting the unfulfilled looking for fulfillment in politics… instead of the already fulfilled seeking to give of themselves to serve their jurisdiction. Also, seeing the cast of jokers in politics detracts high-quality fulfilled people from running for office.

    Two – Even high-quality fulfilled people that are elected become corrupted pursuing their own interests after they are in office for more than eight years.

    Three – While they work for me, they need to devote all their professional time and effort working for me and not themselves.

    [i]”Where does your belief in the wisdom of the everyday
    American play into this?”[/i]

    It is government by the people and for the people. Unless you reject that we are a representative democracy, or you hold a mindset of intellectual classism where we can somehow define groups of people worthy and unworthy of serving their country in a political capacity, I think you have to accept that everyday Americans should be elected to office. Those with the most compelling and resonating message should rise to the top in a fair democratic process. Then in eight years they are done and can go back to whatever it is they do.

  15. E Roberts Musser

    To Jeff Boone: It takes quite a bit of time to learn the ropes, I’m afraid. Just as they learn the ropes to know what they’re doing, you want to term politicians out?

  16. Frankly

    Elaine: If you explain what “the ropes” are these days, you should understand more my thinking here.

    Look around at the private industry and see what happens in eight years. What was Google or Facebook eight years ago?

    People that want to stay in power surround themselves with rules of complexity that requires their knowledge and experience. It is one of the most destructuve forces of modern humanity if allowed to continue. People that know they have to get stuff done will seek to simiplify the decisions processes.

  17. medwoman


    Your first point is merely a matter of semantics. If the set of rules imposed by the government is telling you who you cannot vote for (by telling you who is ineligible) then it is in fact limiting your voting choices for a given office. I disagree with this fundamentally.

    But you and I have an even more fundamental disagreement. “I know ( note you do not say I believe) human behavior is rarely purely altruistic”
    This may be your heart felt belief, but that does not make it fact. I believe that human behavior is frequently altruistic. It is just that these behaviors are not the kind that make headlines or good press. In my view, people frequently serve others before themselves. Watch most parents caring for their children, or drivers at a 4 way stop motioning the other driver ahead, or someone rushing to open a door for someone with parcels. Small examples, I know, but indicative of a form of human behavior that I feel you have a tendency to discount because it does not support your belief in the essential competitive nature of humans.

    I agree with Elaine that success in politics involves a skill set, just as does any skilled pursuit and that it takes time to learn the language and rules of any endeavor. I also feel that we should not arbitrarily limit those who do an extraordinarily good job at representing the interest of the people any more than we should limit a particularly skilled surgeon just because he has been operating for 8 years. It would seem to me that an individuals effectiveness in their position should trump the number of years they have held it.

  18. Frankly


    [i]”If the set of rules imposed by the government is telling you who you cannot vote for”[/i]

    Your argument does not make sense to me since we already limit the terms of many political positions.

    [i]”Watch most parents caring for their children, or drivers at a 4 way stop motioning the other driver ahead, or someone rushing to open a door for someone with parcels.”[/i]

    All of these behaviors serve the interest of the person exhibiting the behavior even if they serve the interests of others too.
    Parents care for their children for a number of reasons, but because they are personally motivated to do so.
    A driver is more or less courteous because of their personal motivation.
    Someone holding a door for another is motivated to do so.

    This does not make these behaviors any less preferable or any less appreciated; but it is a mistake to disregard the fundamental point that human behavior is always rooted in personal motivation.

    I may be diving a little deep here, but I think this may be one source of our ideological differences.

    Let’s say you (using you as an example of a standard-issue liberal friend) drive a Toyota Prius and conserve energy. You have what you consider to be a small carbon footprint. You recycle and compost and grow your own vegetables. You are a vegan and stay fit and flexible with yoga. You wear sweaters in the winter and don’t burn wood in your fireplace or stove. You frequently provide help, material goods and money to charities and people in need. You open doors for people and let other cars go before you at stops. You support all environmental causes and amnesty for illegal immigrants.

    Now let’s say I drive a big truck and have boats and off road vehicles that all consume lots of gas. I have a larger home and I run the air conditioner and fireplace to keep it comfortable. I don’t worry as much about my carbon footprint because I need to spend most of my time and effort growing a business to create and sustain jobs… and I expect technology will advance with alternatives as the cost of fossil fuel continues to rise. I don’t have time to garden and so I buy my groceries including every type of meat to BBQ on my backyard wood smoker. I donate my time and some money to my church, but not to other charities because I believe that I already give too much of my income to the government to redistribute. I want the borders sealed and many illegal immigrants returned to their country of origin because illegal means illegal. I open doors only when someone really needs help with a door, and I usually follow the first to arrive, first to go and right-away rules when coming to a 4-way stop.

    You think you think you live life correctly and I think I live life correctly.

    Our difference is that you think I should be forced by the rules of government to change my life to be more like yours. I, on the other hand, do not really care how you live your life as long as it does not impact me. I see that both of us are motivated by our personal wants and needs… but apparently you think your behavior is more evolved and resulting from intellectual epiphanies that I either have not had yet, or are incapable of having.

    And when you arrive first at the stop sign but still wave me through, I think you do more harm to traffic flow than good only to serve your own motivation to feel better about yourself for being more courteous. However, I still accept your offer since I am generally busy and value each minute of time to compete for greater prosperity.

  19. Frankly

    Medwoman: I just found this quote I had saved away from Ayn Rand:
    [quote]“The virtue involved in helping others is not “selflessness” or “sacrifice,” but integrity. Integrity is loyalty to one’s convictions and values; it is the policy of acting in accordance with one’s values, of expressing, upholding and translating them into practical reality.”[/quote]

    Rand does a much better job getting to the point I was making.

    Have you ever read Atlas Shrugged?

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