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In Defense of Term Limits

Updated: Apr 15

Last week I traveled to St. Louis to speak at the Heartland Leadership Conference. One highlight of the conference was lunch with old and new friends Paul Jacob (of Citizens in Charge), Eric Dixon (of the Show Me Institute) and Patrick Tuohey (of Market and Communications Research) at the Millennium Hotel. The cafe there has a remarkable view of the Gateway Arch, which is quite breathtaking.

My presentation was on term limits and why we need them. Perhaps the strongest argument against term limits is that they deprive the public of the institutional knowledge of experienced public officials. I therefore decided to address this perspective in my remarks by arguing that the dangers of losing such knowledge are greatly exaggerated. I have reproduced a portion of my remarks, and links to my other research on term limits, after the jump. “Obviously being an effective state legislator is a tough job requiring an impressive array of skills. But it is hard to understand why those skills are only the province of politicians. Those with experience in any large public or private bureaucracy have often developed similar political skills of necessity.

“Those who study or teach economics or political science (or, indeed, any intellectually rigorous field of study) are often as familiar with public policy as the average elected official. Those in the field of human services (whether ministering to people’s physical or spiritual needs) have an understanding of human nature which dwarfs that of someone whose primary professional contacts are lobbyists, bureaucrats, and constituents. And those with private sector experience often benefit from a gritty and unromanticized view of precisely how public policy affects the rest of the world – especially with respect to the bloated budgets and unfunded liabilities that plague our federal and state governments.

“In short, while experience as a politician is doubtless helpful for public servants, it is just a bit narrow-minded to argue that other kinds of professional experience are irrelevant or that the skills that elected officials learn on the job aren’t transferable to other fields.

“There is no other profession that requires years and years of on-the-job training to acquire basic competence. When incumbents argue the person who has just been elected cannot be a competent public servant, one begins to smell self-interest.

“There is no doubt it is difficult for a newcomer to learn the legislative process. But this problem does not call for the solution of diluting or eliminating term limits.

“The real problem that needs to be fixed is making the legislative process transparent and comprehensible to a well-informed and intelligent person, rather than arguing that being a legislator is an art, one almost verging on the mystical, that essentially requires years of apprenticeship in order to practice it well. The skills legislators acquire—budgeting, serving the public, administrative decisions involving large bureaucracies, making decisions involving numerous variables and uncertainties, and achieving public consensus on controversial issues by bargaining with interest groups—are useful even to those no longer in office.

“Without some effort to change the culture of the legislature, the value of having a legislature filled with lawmakers who know how to work the system is at best a mixed bag. In Bill Clinton’s autobiography (titled, with characteristic self-regard, My Life), he relates an anecdote involving “one of the brightest and most progressive members of the legislature.” This bright and progressive state Senator, Nick Wilson, is lauded as a canny problem-solver whose knowledge of state government would help the governor.

“Curiously, the book does not mention the disappointing end to Wilson’s political career: felony conviction and imprisonment for his defrauding of a state government program, one that he was instrumental in creating, that was ostensibly designed to provide legal services for disadvantaged children. One lesson of Wilson’s downfall may be that increasingly complex government programs that require experienced political experts to design and administer carry dangers with them that are not immediately apparent.

“It’s my hope that term limits will force the creation of legislative structures and policies that are simpler, more transparent and more open to change. While I understand that some people believe we must throw away term limits to preserve our stores of institutional knowledge, I say that we must change the system to fulfil the promise of term limits: that is, a regular influx of new ideas into our political system that fulfils the American promise of self-government.”

You can also read two papers of mine on term limits published by the Heritage Foundation and the Arkansas Policy Foundation.

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