Answer of the Week

Why term limits? In theory, we ought to be able to vote to keep someone in office so long as they serve our most important needs.  We throw them out if they perform poorly, if they are corrupt, or if they break the laws.

In the federal government, 31 of 45 presidents were reelected.  Since 1930 or so, most members of Congress choose to run for reelection and, starting around 1950, they almost always win.[1] 

High reelection rates have convinced many people that some offices provide too much of an advantage to whoever is in office at the time, so that challengers have little hope of winning.  Their solution is to impose limits on how times a person may be reelected to an office.  Many state constitutions include term limits for governors and legislators.  In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled, however, that states cannot impose term limits on their congressional representatives and senators.  The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution that limits presidents to two terms came after president Franklin Roosevelt won an unprecedented fourth term – after having amassed far more power than previous presidents during his administration’s efforts to end the Great Depression and win World War Two.  

Not everyone is convinced that term limits are a good thing.  Some people argue that term limits are undemocratic because they restrict candidates’ opportunities to compete and deny citizens the right to vote for who they prefer.  Other arguments against term limits include assertions that they reduce politicians’ incentives to care about voters in their final term, reduces the attractiveness of elected offices to policy reformers who would want time to implement their agendas, and reduces their ability to gain expertise and better serve their voters.[2]  Some observers also assert that less opportunity to vote based on performance may invite parties to rely more on polarizing politics.[3]

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[1] See Figures 2 and 3 in Congressional Research Service, 2021. Congressional Careers: Service Tenure and Patterns of Member Service, 1789-2021. Report R41545.

[2] Alt, J., Bueno de Mesquita, E., & Rose, S. (2011). Disentangling accountability and competence in elections: evidence from US term limits. The Journal of Politics, 73(1), 171-186.

[3] Olson, M. P., & Rogowski, J. C. (2020). Legislative term limits and polarization. The Journal of Politics, 82(2), 572-586.

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