Term Limits

Author:Elizabeth Garrett

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After the 1994 elections, twenty-two states had acted to limit the terms of office of their federal legislators. Term limits supporters hope to rid Congress of professional politicians because they believe that such lawmakers inevitably act in ways contrary to the public interest. They seek to replace the professionals with amateurs who have little experience in politics but a great deal of experience as ordinary citizens. The democratic theories prompting support for term limits are diverse. Some advocates argue that lawmakers will become more responsive to the demands of the electorate. Others contend that term limits will insulate lawmakers from reelection pressures and allow them to fulfill a Madisonian vision of representative democracy. All believe that this reform will eliminate unseemly close relationships between elected officials and special INTEREST GROUPS.

Some analysts are skeptical that term limits will result in positive change. For example, a study of the political opportunities that remain open to term-limited lawmakers suggests that political careers will remain possible, although a careerist will be forced to adopt a strategy of "progressive" political ambition by moving periodically to a new political job. Even those who enter the legislature intending to leave after a short time will often decide to pursue longer political careers so that they can continue to benefit from the skills they have developed as lawmakers. Once legislators have developed the human capital to perform

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political functions, they may find the benefits of holding similar office are greater than the benefits of pursuing unrelated careers.

Some critics object to term limits because they will deprive legislatures of their most experienced members, thereby reducing Congress's ability to pass controversial or complex LEGISLATION. Reduced legislator effectiveness also may shift the balance of power between the branches of government. In the federal system, bureaucrats will represent a source of expertise for congressional amateurs, strengthening the executive branch relative to Congress. Similarly, term-limited politicians may rely more heavily on staff or on lobbyists. Finally, some opponents argue that interest groups will continue to influence representatives disproportionately by giving campaign money either to them or to POLITICAL PARTIES, and that term limits will provide special interests with an even more...

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