by Stacey Selleck
ANSWERING TERM LIMITS OBJECTIONS
Term limits empower unelected bureaucrats.
Shortened political horizons created by term limits actually reduce the power of bureaucrats by increasing the quality of control over them according to research conducted in 2019. In her study, “Constraining Bureaucrats Today Knowing You’ll Be Gone Tomorrow: The Effect of Legislative Term Limits on Statutory Discretion,” Mona Vakilifathi concludes that having a fixed time horizon due to term limits constrains bureaucracy and restricts the statutory discretion of unelected staffers.1 This ensures the legislators’ preferences are implemented while still in office. Because there is a “fixed horizon” with a definitive “due date,” term limited legislators are more motivated to pass important legislation before they vacate their positions. Conversely, career politicians regularly “kick the can down the road” knowing reelection rates nearly guarantee indefinite terms in office. Lack of term limits not only results in inaction, it empowers unelected bureaucrats, since lawmakers are less compelled to control the process, placing more trust and power in the hands of seasoned staffers.
In a study of 15 states with legislative term limits, Woods and Baranowski find that an increase in legislator turnover positively correlates with legislator influence over the bureaucracy2. There is also evidence to suggest there is increased innovative legislation when long-time legislators have a deadline thrust on them due to newly enacted term limits.3 Careerists with a set date to leave office have an increased urgency to implement legislation they perceive as important to their legacy hence improving their list of accomplishments, useful to future employment opportunities in their return back to the community.
Term limited legislators are incentivized to enact more detailed legislation and to exert more control over the process in order to ensure that their preferences will be implemented and not left to an agency or a governor to decide. The result is maximized productivity and maximized favorable policy outcomes.
1 Mona Vakilifathi, “Constraining Bureaucrats Today Knowing You’ll Be Gone Tomorrow: The Effect of Legislative Term Limits on Statutory Discretion,” Policy Studies Journal, Vol. 47, No. 4, 2019. p. 992
2 Neal D. Woods and Michael Baranowski, “Legislative Professionalism and Influence on State Agencies: The Effects of Resources and Careerism,” Legislative Studies Quarterly , Nov., 2006, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Nov., 2006), pp. 585-609
3 John M. Carey, et. al., “The Effects of Term Limits on State Legislatures: A New Survey of the 50 States,” Legislative Studies Quarterly, Feb., 2006, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Feb., 2006), pp. 105-134