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Do Term Limits Reduce Bipartisan Cooperation?

Statehouse exit sign
Brian Mackey
NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS
An exit sign in the Illinois State Capitol Building.

A number of Illinois politicians continue to push the issue of of term limits.

On Tuesday, a group of House Republicans staged an event expressing support for the concept. That follows a statewide tour last week by Gov. Bruce Rauner, also a Republican.

It’s worth noting that the earliest Illinois voters would be able to vote on the constitutional amendment that would be necessary to enact term limits is in 2018 — though such practical considerations have never stopped anyone from capitalizing on what they see as a good political issue.

Be that as it may, it’s worth pondering the question: Would term limits actually achieve the kind of benefits that supporters say they would?

The field of political science has spent a lot of time looking at term limits. One of the latest papers on the topic was published in the new issue of State Politics & Policy Quarterly. Co-authored by Kathryn VanderMolen of the University of Tampa and Clint Swift of the University of Missouri, it looks at whether term limits have an effect on bipartisan cooperation in state legislatures.

Interview Highlights

On how term limits change incentives for legislators

Because these term limits necessarily are shortening legislators’ time horizons, political scientists show they can change how members behave. For instance, we found that term-limited legislators report spending less time keeping in touch with constituents (and) securing money and projects for their districts. They are also no less interested in reelection as long as they are eligible to run. And they still devote similar amounts of time to fundraising and campaigning as non-limited legislators.

So in other words, imposing term limits likely will not eliminate the political ambition or political careerism that term-limit proponents would like to see.

On how term limits affect cooperation across the aisle

Term-limited legislators tend to produce more partisan sponsored legislation, and we think this is because it instills career uncertainty. When legislators know that they’re only going to be in the legislature for a certain amount of time, they don’t necessarily want to return as citizens once they are turned out. Many are potentially seeking out their next office. And so when this career uncertainty blends with the political ambition that term-limited legislators still have, bipartisanship becomes a risky strategy. Their instinct is to become more partisan in their collaborative activity. And this is likely to be the product of legislators’ concerns over their future campaigns and potential challengers than to their constituents.

On why term-limited legislators are more partisan

Legislators feel squeezed for time. They think, OK, I have eight years to get this particular policy through — I have six years to get this particular policy through — that I came into the legislature to try and push through. And they feel this pressure, and therefore any compromising with the opposing party feels less important to them.

Their dual purpose is to present this partisan policy in their next campaign for whatever office they choose to run for post term-out.

On why term limits do not reduce political ambition and careerism

It’s actually quite unusual in a state without term limits for, say, a senator to run for the lower house. However in a term-limited states you will see that quite often, where a senator will run for the lower house (or) a house member will run for a local office. Whereas in non-term-limited states it tends to run in the other direction, where you progressively move up from local, state and — hopefully — to the national level of politics.

On the price of having more “citizen” legislators

There have been other studies that have shown that what term limits have done is mandate fresh faces in the legislature. There are new people coming into the legislature. There are “citizens” coming into the legislature. But that also comes at a cost. These legislators are naturally at a disadvantage in comparison to, say, the governor or executive agencies. Legislature leadership is weakened by term limits. Leaders are able to coordinate legislative efforts, and without a strong influence coming from them, there lies the potential for the governor or executive agencies to have a stronger hand in the policymaking process.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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